The son of a Hungarian father and Austrian mother from Vienna, Kentner grew up in a household where the mother was timid and the father overbearing. A child prodigy, he entered the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest at the age of six studying piano with Arnold Székely and composition with Hans Koessler. The young child was not satisfied with these teachers, who fed him a diet of scales and exercises, so when he changed teachers and joined the classes of Leo Weiner for piano and Zoltán Kodály for theory and composition he was much happier. Both became friends to the young man, providing emotional bonds of the type his father was unable to give.
Although Kentner gave a Chopin recital at the Academy when he was eleven, his public debut was given at the age of thirteen in Budapest. At fifteen he toured Hungary and Austria and at seventeen made his debut in Berlin where he had gone to live. However, the death of his father necessitated his return to Budapest to support his mother and sister. Back in Budapest, Kentner resumed his studies with Kodály who asked Kentner to play his works in public. As a result, Kentner gave several first performances of this composer’s work. During this time he also played a cycle of all the Beethoven piano concertos in Budapest and included Bach, Schubert and Chopin in his programmes. In 1928 Kentner gave a recital in London’s Grotrian Hall, where he played Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor in a programme of Liszt and Chopin. He was described as ‘a finely equipped young pianist from Budapest’ whose Liszt Sonata ‘…reached a very high level of technical display’. His forte passages were described as ‘richly sonorous’, a hallmark of Kentner’s unique tone quality.
Along with Bartók and Kodály, Scriabin, Falla, Debussy and Ravel also appeared on his programmes. In 1933 Kentner gave the first Hungarian performance of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2 at the composer’s request, with Otto Klemperer conducting. In the preceding year Kentner took part in the second International Chopin Competition in Warsaw. He came fifth, the winner that year being Alexander Uninsky. The following year he won third prize at the first Liszt Competition in Budapest, the winner there being Annie Fischer.
In 1935 Kentner, by now married to pianist Ilona Kabós, decided to move to London. He gave an all-Liszt recital in London on 8 October 1936 commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death. Liszt was certainly not popular in Britain at that time, but the concert, including the ‘Dante’ Sonata, Ballade No. 2 in B minor and Nuages gris, was a success; although one critic rather unfairly commented, ‘Mr Kentner has not the magic touch which transforms dross into gold, whereby a great actor may momentarily persuade us that melodramatic nonsense is fine drama.’ Kentner began to gain a reputation as a Liszt player and recorded some of his lesser-known works for Columbia. After a series of Mozart concerto performances with Thomas Beecham and the London Philharmonic Orchestra Kentner continued his career in Britain, performing large cycles of works including the complete piano sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert, and Bach’s Das wohltemperierte Klavier. In 1942 he and Kabós gave the première of the revised version of Bartók’s Sonata for two Pianos and Percussion. Three years later he gave the European première of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Sir Adrian Boult, and performed at Myra Hess’s Lunchtime Concerts at the National Gallery.
Kentner’s marriage to Kabós ended in 1945, and his second wife Griselda Gould was the sister of Diana Menuhin, wife of violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Kentner and Menuhin became friends and performing partners, giving the première of Walton’s Violin Sonata and touring frequently. They also formed a trio with cellist Gaspar Cassadó. It was not until Kentner was fifty-one that he made his debut in America. A successful Town Hall recital in New York in November 1956 was followed by a tour. In May 1957 he played Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat Op. 83 with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Dimitri Mitropoulos in Carnegie Hall. In 1960, Kentner played the complete Beethoven piano sonatas in New York in seven recitals, but after this he played in America only once again, in 1979. During the 1950s and 1960s whilst living in Britain Kentner took an interest in contemporary British music, giving premières of Michael Tippett’s Piano Concerto, Arthur Bliss’s Tryptich for piano and Alan Rawsthorne’s revised Piano Concerto No. 1. He also played works by William Walton, Arnold Bax, Constant Lambert, and John Ireland.
Kentner continued to perform and teach for the rest of his life. From 1974 he taught at the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey whilst his interest in Liszt made him an ideal president of the British Liszt Society from 1965 until his death. For the Society, formed in 1951, Kentner, as president, would give an annual recital.
Never a pianist of virtuoso display, Kentner used his talents strictly for musical ends. Although identified particularly with the music of Chopin and Liszt, he always completely absorbed himself in a work when studying it, often delivering an interpretation that could sound introverted, particularly in his later years. His first commercial recordings were made in Hungary, some of them being licensed to Edison Bell in England. A bravura performance of Chopin’s Fantaisie-impromptu Op. 66 and an elegant Impromptu in A flat Op. 29 show in abundance the talent of the twenty-three-year-old Kentner.
In Germany in the early 1930s Kentner recorded for Electrola some works with violinist Erica Morini. In 1937, two years after he had settled in London, he signed a contract with English Columbia. During the war years through to the late 1940s Kentner recorded a fair cross-section of his repertoire. Unsurprisingly, it was dominated by the music of Liszt. In exchange for recording a few popular titles, such as the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, Columbia allowed Kentner to record rarely-heard works by the Hungarian master: the Ballade No. 2 in B minor, Polonaise No. 1 in C minor, the Scherzo and March and Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude. Kentner is at the height of his powers here, his glorious tone, intellectual conception and overall understanding of the works making these Liszt recordings some of the most important of the 78rpm era.
Kentner also recorded a wonderfully expansive ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata Op. 106 by Beethoven as well as the ‘Appassionata’ Sonata Op. 57, and works by Chopin, Dohnányi, Field, Schumann, Bartók, Debussy (his Children’s Corner Suite) and Balakirev (Islamey). Another virtuoso work that Kentner recorded for Columbia was one of Liszt’s Illustrations du Prophète arrangements from Meyerbeer’s opera, and the Scherzo Les Patineurs. It is rarely heard, and Kentner gives a bravura (if abridged) performance of the work as he does of Schulz-Evler’s Arabesques on An der schönen blauen Donau by Johann Strauss.
Chamber recordings for Columbia include Beethoven violin sonatas with Jenő Léner, piano duets by Walton with Kabós, and piano trios by Brahms, Dvořák and Mozart. There are only two recordings with orchestra from this period, Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major K. 414 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Thomas Beecham, and Constant Lambert’s arrangement for piano and orchestra of Liszt’s ‘Dante’ Sonata. Perhaps Kentner’s most famous disc for Columbia, and probably the highest seller, was of Richard Adinsell’s Warsaw Concerto, the work so effectively used in the film Dangerous Moonlight (1944). His name, however, at his own request, was not printed on the label and he did not receive royalties from the sales.
In December 1949 Kentner recorded the twelve Études d’exécution transcendante Op. 11 by Sergei Liapunov. The recording was sponsored by the Maharaja of Mysore, who also sponsored Kentner’s recording of Balakirev’s Piano Sonata in B flat minor recorded in the same year. In the early 1950s Kentner recorded the Beethoven violin sonatas with Yehudi Menuhin for EMI and made LPs for various companies, notably Chopin’s four ballades and Barcarolle for Saga and the Chopin études for Capitol/EMI. He then embarked on a major recording project for Vox/Turnabout during the 1960s and 1970s in which he recorded much Liszt: the complete Hungarian Rhapsodies, complete Études d’exécution transcendante, the ‘Paganini’ Études and many of Liszt’s paraphrases and transcriptions. He also recorded some of the late piano pieces and rarely-heard works such as the Five Hungarian Folksongs, Elegy No. 2 and Apparitions No. 1. By the time he recorded the virtuoso works of Liszt for Vox, Kentner was in his sixties and his style was far mellower than it had been in his youth. However, in some of the Vox recordings, such as the Waltz from Gounod’s Faust, the strong and virile Kentner of the earlier years can still be heard. Kentner also recorded again the Liapunov Études d’exécution transcendante Op. 11 and the Balakirev Sonata in B flat minor.
Many of the Liszt recordings on Columbia and Vox/Turnabout have been reissued on compact disc by Vox, APR and Pearl.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10)