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8.111223 - BALAKIREV: Piano Sonata / LISZT: Apres une lecture du Dante (Kentner) (1938-1951)
Great Pianists: Louis Kentner (1905-1987)
Louis (Lajos) Kentner was born in Karwin, Silesia on 19 July 1905. Established some time in the thirteenth century, Karwin was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, situated near its border with Poland. After the Czecho-Slovak Republic was founded following World War I, Karwin was renamed Karviná and gained city status by governmental decree in 1923. The city today lies in the Czech Republic.
Louis Kentner received his first piano lessons from his mother and by the age of seven had been accepted as a student at the Royal Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, where he studied with Arnold Székely (piano), Zoltán Kodály (composition) and Leo Weiner (chamber music). In a memoir published in 1987, Kentner wrote: "Leo Weiner's was the earliest and strongest of influences on me as a musician. He was a really 'great' master-pedagogue who was also a significant creative artist, a penetrating musical intelligence, self-taught in playing the piano (which he did with a cat-like instinctive physical skill but also an inability of sustained concentration), in short, a universal musician." Regarding Kodály, Kentner said: "Where Weiner was outgoing, laughter-loving, sardonic, communicative, Kodály was slow-moving, given to few words and long silences, and had a sustained air of inviolable spirituality…" Kodály wrote for him his Dances of Marosszék, of which Kentner gave the première in 1927.
In 1935 Kentner moved to Britain where he quickly distinguished himself for his daring and monumental piano recitals, which included the complete Beethoven sonatas, all of the sonatas of Schubert and the complete Well-Tempered Clavier of Bach. He soon became a familiar presence on the BBC, performing the complete Années de Pèlerinage by Liszt and many other works. He made lasting friendships with Sir Thomas Beecham (with whom he performed a number of memorable Mozart concerti), Sir Adrian Boult (with whom he gave the European premiére of Bartók's Third Piano Concerto), and composer/conductor Constant Lambert. Kentner had works by several British composers in his repertoire, including Walton's Violin Sonata (1950), written for Yehudi Menuhin and Kentner, Arnold Cooke's Piano Concerto, of which Kentner gave the première with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1942, Alan Rawsthorne's First Piano Concerto, introduced by Kentner at a 1942 Promenade Concert, and Michael Tippett's Piano Concerto, which the pianist played in both Britain and America. Among Kentner's closest musical colleagues was his brother-in-law, Yehudi Menuhin, with whom he toured India in 1954 and who partnered him in many recordings, including the complete violin sonatas of Beethoven.
While Kentner's concert tours eventually took him to six continents, his American début did not take place until 1956, when the pianist performed music by Bach/Liszt, Beethoven, Bartók and Kodály, together with the twelve Etudes Opus 25 of Chopin, at Town Hall in New York City. Writing in the New York Times, Edward Downes commented that Kentner "waited until he was 51 to make his North American début. His Town Hall audience was startled to realize that an artist of his caliber could have remained almost unknown in this country for so long." Howard Taubman, reviewing the concert in the same publication, wrote: "The first impression Louis Kentner makes is that he is a musician with the capacity to illuminate freshly whatever he touches as a pianist. It is also the last impression one takes away from a long program… His performances were so imaginative and exhilarating that one could not understand why his introduction to this country had been delayed so long… Mr. Kentner's musicianship is solidly complemented by technical gifts of the first order. He can do just about whatever he wishes at the keyboard. His fingers are fleet and accurate, and his tone is susceptible to both wide and subtle gradients." The praise was echoed by Paul Henry Lang in the New York Herald Tribune : "Mr. Kentner is beyond doubt one of the finest pianists heard here in a long time. His technique and keyboard security are phenomenal, but this surely is the result of perfect rapport between mind and fingers."
Kentner returned frequently to perform in America. In 1960, he devoted seven recitals to the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas at New York's Judson Hall, whose intimate setting (the hall only accommodated 275 people) was a perfect venue for his cycle. The sonatas were arranged in a performing order that Kentner believed was stylistically and musically superior to mere chronology. Writing in the New York Times, Raymond Ericson, commented: "Mr. Kentner's pianism is wonderfully vital, a quality so essential to Beethoven's music… His artistic vigor, as much in his mind as in his fingers, brought what seemed to be new life to the fast movements. It also infused the slow movements and gave them an immediacy and aliveness no matter how quiet the tempo or mood, that should be a lesson to all pianists." Alas, Kentner's repeated offers to record the complete Beethoven sonatas were gently rebuffed by His Masters Voice, leaving us no audible evidence preserving his Beethoven sonata cycle.
Louis Kentner was an active teacher and scholar. In Britain he was president of The Liszt Society and The Chopin Society. He also composed piano pieces, chamber music, orchestral works, and songs. Kentner died on 23 September 1987.
Louis Kentner began his recording career in the late 1920s, first with HMV in Germany in collaboration with violinist Erica Morini (recordings were made between November 1927 and December 1929 of music by Bach/Franko, Hubay, Kreisler, Mozart, Tchaikovsky/Kreisler, Valdez/Robert, and Viotti), and in Hungary, which yielded recordings that were issued under the Edison Bell label. The Edison Bell discs featured repertoire by Chopin, Dohnányi, Kodály, and Brahms, but had limited distribution in England, Slovakia and Hungary. Upon emigrating to England, Kentner began a life-long association with British Columbia and later with His Master's Voice, making his first Columbia recordings in 1937 in EMI's Studio 3, Abbey Road, London. The recordings featured on this disc were recorded between 1938 and 1951.
The opening work is Kentner's own transcription of the Valse, from William Walton's Façade [Track 1]. The reviewer, writing in The Gramophone (August 1939) stated: "The explosive and jerky Valse, played wittily by Kentner, is a mildly amusing caricature of the typical "concert-waltz", or those garnished versions of Strauss waltzes which some pianists affect and welcome." In listening to this short musical morsel, one imagines Kentner immensely enjoying himself, as he tosses off this music. Kentner's timing, phrasing and verve make this short work particularly tantalising.
When Kentner gave an all-Liszt recital at the Aeolian Hall in London in October 1936 (commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the composer's death), Constant Lambert was in the audience. Writing in The Sunday Referee, Lambert placed Kentner "among the first half-dozen masters of his instrument, while as interpreter of Liszt he is only second to Petri". High praise, indeed! Over a period of some fifty years, Kentner proved to be a devoted and untiring advocate for Liszt's music, recording dozens of works for British Columbia, HMV, Qualiton and VOX/Turnabout. Liszt's Csárdás Macabre [Track 2] and En Rêve [Track 3] were the very first recordings of these two works to appear on disc. Unfortunately these rare late-era 78rpm discs had an extremely short catalogue life. The reviewer, writing in The Gramophone (March 1952), spoke glowingly of the Csárdás Macabre : "How "modern" is the opening! The piece is one not much heard in public until our day. Kentner has done first-rate work for Liszt, in bringing out the unfamiliar and in handling all the works so notably, with firm, unsentimental hold upon their basic moods."
Kentner championed two Russian composers – Sergey Lyapunov and Mili Balakirev. He recorded Lyapunov's complete Transcendental Études, Opus 11 and Balakirev's Rêverie, Sixth Mazurka, Islamey, and the Sonata in B flat minor [Tracks 4 - 7]. Sponsored by the Maharaja of Mysore's music foundation in 1949, Balakirev's 1905 Sonata received its very first recording by Kentner. The musicologist Gerald Abraham found the Balakirev Sonata, a work of "strikingly unconventional design". Vernon Duke found the second movement, a mazurka, "a zestful contrast to the melancholy, Northern Russian landscape feeling of the opening movement, and the subdued Intermezzo is a perfect lead-in to the exuberant finale". The Balakirev recording was enthusiastically reviewed in the August 1951 issue of The Gramophone : "Louis Kentner plays the work superbly, with all the requisite virtuosity yet without any lack of delicate poetic insight."
When Kentner recorded Chopin's Bolero in C major, Opus 19 [Track 8] in 1949, there had been only two previous 78rpm recordings – Lily Dumont's 1928 Polydor and Edouard Isaacs' 1929 Regal. The Gramophone (April 1950) reviewer was somewhat unconvinced by the music but complimentary to Kentner. "Kentner seems to find a sufficiently robust yet amusing sensibility for the beguilements of this by no means tiresome essay – for its variety is considerable, and its basic rhythm engaging. The excellent recording gracefully brings off strokes both strong and delicate. I like the colour well."
Among the few early recordings by Kentner released in America was his 1938 set of Liszt's Venezia e Napoli [Tracks 9-10]. As a supplement to the Italian book of the Années de Pèlerinage, Liszt wrote a collection of pieces called Venezia e Napoli (Venice and Naples). The three pieces, Gondoliera, Canzone and Tarantella were published in 1859. When Kentner's recording was issued in 1938, the sole existing recording of the two movements, albeit with a brief cut, was Edward Kilenyi's French Pathé recording. A complete recording of the second movement, the Canzone played by Sigfried Grundeis, was finally issued by the German Odeon label in 1941. The Gramophone (September 1938) reviewer seemed to find the music "not very interesting", comparing one section of the music to "a whole row of defective water closets!" while giving Kentner his due as a virtuoso: "The appalling difficulties of the Tarantella leave the player neither paralysed nor struck down with tetanus, and those who like the art of the virtuoso from a sporting aspect will have a grand time hearing him take his fences… Kentner keeps the course with unfailing vigour and accuracy and ends triumphant and unwearied. It is at once a magnificent feat of pianism and an empty exhibition of musical histrionics."
Liszt's second volume of the Années de Pèlerinage, "Italy", consists of seven pieces, among which is the so-called "Dante Sonata". Although the title Après une lecture de Dante (Fantasia quasi Sonata) (After a Reading of Dante) is taken from a poem of Victor Hugo, there is no doubt that in the so-called "Dante Sonata" Liszt expressed his own reactions to the "strange tongues, horrible cries, words of pain, tones of anger" which Dante describes in his Inferno. When Constant Lambert and choreographer Frederick Ashton combined their talents to present Liszt's "Dante Sonata" as a ballet in 1940, it was Louis Kentner who was asked to join the Sadler's Wells Orchestra to record the work. The Times (London) provided a review of the ballet after its première: "Symbolizing the struggles of the children of light and the children of darkness, the ballet is a moving picture, showing skill and imagination in designing groups of writhing and contorted figures… The dancers go barefoot with hair unbound, the lighting is from the side and adds shadows to the whirling forms; the décor and costumes, in their simplicity, are at once effective and beautiful. Mr. Constant Lambert has rearranged the music for piano and orchestra, which makes it better for dancing but emphasizes the claptrap that lurks in it… There are no definite characters, but the leading members of the company were able to characterize their parts, Miss June Frey as a veritable Fury, for instance, and Mr. Robert Helpman maintaining steadily a glassy expression of evil, while among the white-robed souls Miss Pamela May and Miss Margot Fonteyn depicted purification and hope. The ballet, which certainly enlarges once more the expressive possibilities of dancing and is pictorially satisfying to the eye, was received with great enthusiasm." The recording was issued concurrently with the ballet's performances and was reviewed enthusiastically in The Gramophone (May 1940): "Kentner has never done anything so absolutely first-rate in every way as this very vivid interpretation. His rapid wrist work in the many repeated semiquaver groups is admirably clear, the big moments most powerfully done, but most memorable of all is his beautiful cantabile playing in the slow sections… Constant Lambert's extraordinary apt and picturesque orchestration might have been dictated to him by Liszt in a dream. It heightens and colours the dramatic and emotional elements of the music with sure instinct and often with superb effect, particularly in the use of brass and percussion." The Lambert/Kentner recording of the "Dante Sonata" was the only version of the work available for a number of years, until 1945, when György Sandor's solo version was released.
Marina A. Ledin and Victor Ledin
Louis Kentner's recordings on British Columbia discs had limited distribution and, unfortunately, also a short catalogue life. Historic restoration projects are often a team effort, and as such, a number of collectors and archivists contributed their copies for this release, including Richard Wahlberg, Lance Bowling, and Michael Gartz. Special thanks go to Peter Bromley, Hayden Jones and Michael Gray for their discographic research and assistance in locating rare press clippings quoted above.
William WALTON: Façade: Valse (Transcribed by Kentner)
Franz LISZT: Csárdás Macabre (S.224/R.46)
Franz LISZT: En Rêve (Nocturne) (S.207/R.87)
Mili BALAKIREV: Sonata in B flat minor
Fryderyk CHOPIN: Bolero in C major, Op. 19
Franz LISZT: Venezia e Napoli (S.162/R.10)
Franz LISZT: Après une lecture de Dante (Orchestrated by Constant LAMBERT)
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