Edward Kilenyi’s father, also named Edward (1884–1968), was a composer and violinist who taught George Gershwin and worked for the film industry in the early days of sound film. At the age of three young Edward could pick out the tunes of his father’s new quintet on the piano. Growing up in a musical household, Kilenyi did not have to endure the life of a performing prodigy, but at the age of eleven, he played for Ernő Dohnányi who was touring America. The composer suggested that the boy study under him at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. This was the beginning of a lifelong association between Kilenyi and Dohnányi. Kilenyi premièred many of the composer’s works and they often performed on two pianos together. In 1928 Dohnányi took his young protégé on a tour playing the works of Schubert in celebration of the composer’s centennial.
Kilenyi graduated from the Franz Liszt Academy with the Artist Diploma and from then on began touring Europe. In 1933 he made Paris his base, from where he toured France and England. In 1935 he performed in Britain at the invitation of Thomas Beecham, touring with the London Philharmonic Orchestra playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat. It was at the French-Hungarian Liszt Festival in 1936 that Paderewski heard Kilenyi perform and was impressed by the young pianist. In a recital at the Grotrian Hall in February of 1937 Kilenyi played Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ Sonata Op. 53 and Chopin’s Piano Sonata in B flat minor Op. 35. His legato playing was praised, but one reviewer commented, ‘…he is at present inclined to be carried away by impetuosity in approaching a climax… but that is a fault natural to youth.’ Kilenyi’s success in London led to invitations from orchestras in France and Germany, the Budapest Philharmonic and many of the best American orchestras including the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia. During this time he performed with such conductors as Otto Klemperer, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Eugene Ormandy, John Barbirolli, Paul Paray, Charles Munch, Henry Wood, Willem Mengelberg and Karl Muck.
In February of 1939 Kilenyi gave another recital in London at which he played Beethoven’s Variations in C minor WoO 80, the ‘Les Adieux’ Sonata Op. 81a and Chopin’s Études Op. 10. A reviewer thought that the Beethoven ‘…attested a high standard of accomplishment’ but that there was not enough ‘…acute and bracing control of rhythm’. In the second half Kilenyi played works ‘…by Bartók, Dohnányi and other composers, for whom Mr Kilenyi has a lively sympathy’.
In October of the following year Kilenyi made his New York solo debut at the Town Hall and, during the same season, his orchestral debut at Carnegie Hall. His career was
going from strength to strength but was abruptly halted when America entered World War II. Kilenyi joined the United States Army and in 1945 became the Music Control Officer for Bavaria in the United States Military Government. His task was to rebuild the cultural life of the area, and it was here that he arranged for Georg Solti to conduct Beethoven’s Fidelio at the Bavarian Opera. Kilenyi also used his official capacity to locate Dohnányi who had left Budapest. It took three months to find him, but he was finally located in the Austrian village of Neukirchen am Walde. Kilenyi assisted in gaining a teaching position for Dohnányi in America, who in 1949 took up a post at the School of Music at the Florida State University in Tallahassee. Four years later, Kilenyi joined the same faculty as Professor of Piano.
The second half of Kilenyi’s life was spent teaching and giving concerts. His repertoire included many major works such as Bach’s Das wohltemperierte Klavier (complete), both books of Chopin’s études and the two piano sonatas, all of Debussy’s préludes and the complete works of Dohnányi. After the war Kilenyi would ask his audiences to choose four of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas for him to play, as he had them all in his repertoire. Also in his repertoire were works by Bartók, Schumann, Brahms and Liszt. In 1986 Kilenyi was awarded the Liszt Centennial Medal by the Hungarian government, and was named as Florida Ambassador of the Arts in 1990.
Kilenyi made his first recordings for Pathé in Paris in 1937. Two staples of Kilenyi’s repertoire were recorded: Chopin’s Études Op. 10 and the Piano Sonata in B flat minor Op. 35. He also recorded some works by Liszt and the following year recorded that composer’s Au bord d’une source, Mephisto-Waltz No. 1 and Tarantella from Venezia e Napoli. Kilenyi was also asked to record some works with orchestra, and with Selmar Meyrowitz recorded Liszt’s Totentanz, Hungarian Fantasy and his arrangement of Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy. The recording of Totentanz was a great success and won the Grand Prix du Disque in 1938. In the late 1930s and early 1940s Kilenyi recorded in America for Columbia, setting down Schumann’s Études Symphoniques, Chopin’s waltzes, Dohnányi’s Piano Quintet and Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E minor Op. 11 with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos. One of his most enjoyable discs is of Dohnányi’s Suite en Valse for two pianos which he recorded with the composer in 1948.
These recordings show Kilenyi to be a fine pianist of elegant style who always produced a beautiful sound at the piano. His technique could encompass Chopin’s études and such war-horses as Liszt’s Mephisto-Waltz and Tarantella. In the recording of Chopin’s Op. 10 Études the ‘lack of precision and clarity’ in these works noticed by a London critic in 1939 is occasionally evident. Most impressive are the Hungarian Rhapsodies by Liszt where Kilenyi projects the drama and style of these works without ever lapsing into vulgarity: it is a pity he did not record more of the Rhapsodies for Pathé. The Mephisto-Waltz is also impressive as Kilenyi again concentrates on the overall impact of the work and does not dwell on details, whilst the recording of Totentanz is particularly well recorded and the performance is controlled, incisive and rhythmically compelling.
In the LP era Kilenyi made eleven discs for the Remington label in America. He repeated much of his earlier recorded repertoire, but also recorded Debussy’s Préludes Book 1, Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a theme of Handel Op. 24, and Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major K. 488 with the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra and Paul Walter.
On compact disc, APR have issued a two-disc set of most of the Pathé recordings from 1937–1939, whilst Pearl have produced an excellent single disc of American Columbia recordings including the Suite en Valse by Dohnányi and Schumann’s Études Symphoniques.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).