When it was issued, competition for the Hammerklavier
was strong. You had only to turn to Kempff and Schnabel, the principal runners in the domestic catalogues, to note the severity of the opposition faced by Louis Kentner’s Columbia. The rather gladiatorial nature of this kind of observation may now seem crass, but it was a strong material consideration in the days of 78s, when relative values ensured that multiple versions of the same performance in one’s collection were a rarity. The Kentner set also had the disadvantage of being released as war overtook the country.
Kentner was much later to re-record the sonata for Saga (XID 5238) in the mid-1960s but his earlier, more openly virtuosic thoughts on the score better realised the work’s kinetic drama and adamantine power. His technical control was also stronger in the 1939 set, made at a time when he was a most commanding exponent of the repertoire, as contemporaneous Liszt performances demonstrate. Intellectual and digital sinew are held in fine balance, and if one may wish for a wilder sense of flourish in the Scherzo one can at least note that he remained relatively consistent in his control here. The span of the Adagio is finely judged and the finale’s fugue is actually rather more controlled than Schnabel’s own. In all, this is a performance of tension and intellectual power. In some respects it reminded me more of, say, Petri than either of the cited competitors.
The two Liszt makeweights are eminently impressive examples from a man closely associated on 78 and LP with the composer’s music.
From a technical perspective the side joins in the slow movement of the Hammerklavier
are notably well achieved and the sound is forward, well balanced and convincing. The original was always good. Pristine has utilised the graph of an Ashkenazy performance to enhance the product still further. As I’ve often observed, this level of intervention is always problematic and some may shy away from its ramifications. But at least they will be forewarned that this is the modus operandus. For others the sonic depth thus realised will be an enhancement to purchase.