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Mily BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Piano Sonata in B flat minor [24:08]
Rêverie [4.50]
Mazurka No. 6 in A flat major [4.39]
Islamey (Oriental Fantasy) [9:05]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Piano Sonata in B minor S178 [27.57]
Sergei LYAPUNOV (1859-1924)
Études, Op. 11 no. 1: Berceuse Andantino (first recording) [4.27]
12 Études d'exécution transcendante, Op. 11 (67.52)
Louis Kentner (piano)
rec. Studio 3, Abbey Road, London, 1939-1949
APR 6020 [70:41 + 72:19]

I first got to know Louis Kentner (1905-1987) through his collaborations with his brother-in-law Yehudi Menuhin. They set down complete cycles of the Bach and Beethoven Violin and Piano Sonatas in the early 1950s. To complete the Three Bs trilogy, the Brahms Sonatas were recorded in the late 'fifties, but somehow escaped the notice of EMI and were never transferred to CD. That was left to Forgotten Records in 2014 (review); I see they are now included in Warner’s mammoth 91 CD Menuhin Centenary Edition. Then there are the trio recordings, where they were joined by the Spanish cellist Gaspar Cassadó. It was much later that I encountered Kentner’s pioneering Liszt recordings (1937-1941) via APR 5514. They include an exceptionally virile account of the Ballade No. 2, and a compelling Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude.

The recording of the Liszt Sonata here dates from 1948 and, at the time he committed it to disc, the composer was, in the pianist’s words, ‘the bête-noire of British critics’; Alfred Brendel encountered a similar problem playing Liszt in the 1950s. In 1936 Kentner had given an all-Liszt recital at London’s Aeolian Hall, which had received the approbation of none other than Constant Lambert, who considered Kentner’s approach to the Hungarian composer by no means empty virtuosity, but informed by intelligence and musicianship. His Liszt recordings followed on the back of this event, with the Sonata being set down several years later. The pianist was aware that he had been pigeon-holed as a Liszt specialist, but it didn’t bother him, and he acted as President of the Liszt Society from 1965 until his death.

Although cast in one movement, the Liszt Sonata consists of six themes which undergo transformation as the work progresses. Kentner’s approach to this epic work is underpinned by an intelligent grasp of the work’s cyclical structure. He achieves a single cohesive narrative, integrating the themes into one overarching sonata-form movement. We get the fireworks but also the lyrically sublime moments, and these he invests with poetry and profundity. His sensitive pedalling in the more eloquent moments enables him to achieve myriad rich shadings. For instance, sample 11:45 where his pellucid tone is ethereal in quality. Not only is he capable of realizing immense fortissimos, but gently controlled pianissimos also. The fugal section at 18:25 is particularly successful, where the polyphonic strands are clearly and cleanly delineated. This is the recording’s first release in any format since its first issue on a very late 78rpm set in 1951.

Two Russian composers form the main bulk of the release. I’ve been aware of Kentner’s recording of Lyapunov’s 12 Études d'exécution transcendante for a while. They are highly regarded by connoisseurs, and were previously released by APR in 2002 (5620), but I’ve never got round to listening to them until now. Their pairing here with the Balakirev works is apposite, as Lyapunov was the elder composer’s last important pupil. Once again, Kentner was probably a pioneer in this repertoire, it being little-known at the time, and certainly this recording of the Balakirev Piano Sonata in B flat minor was its first outing on record. The sonata, together with the Lyapunov Études, would have constituted a risky recording venture at the time, and it’s thanks to the largesse of the Maharaja of Mysore (1919-1974), founder of the Medtner Society, that financial backing for the project was made available.

It’s difficult, after listening to the Balakirev’s Piano Sonata in B flat minor, a work overflowing with ardent lyricism, to explain away its unjust neglect. When it was set down in June 1949 Kentner had the field to himself, and even today not many have taken up the mantle. Despite its fairly unorthodox structure (the second movement is a mazurka, composed five years earlier and published separately), its tuneful and gloriously melodic narrative can’t fail to win you over. Kentner’s reading is idiomatic, and truly captures the work’s Russian flavour. His technical polish fully does justice to the superb pianistic writing. In short, it’s an authoritative and invigorating reading of exceptional appeal. Rêverie is sumptuously passionate in Kentner’s hands, and Mazurka No. 6 which follows is rhythmically nuanced. One can only sit back and admire the scintillating virtuosity of the ubiquitous Islamey, a master-stroke, incandescent in its delivery.

Kentner’s discography boasts two cycles of the Lyapunov Études, this 78 version from December 1949 and a later stereo remake for Vox/Turnabout taped in 1972 which, as far as I know, has never made it to CD. It’s a terrific cycle of pieces and deserves to be better known; not too many pianists have taken it up, and recordings are few and far between. My only acquaintance with it to date is via the Konstantin Scherbakov recording on Marco Polo (8.223491). The composer dedicated the set to the memory of Franz Liszt, and the final étude is titled Élégie en memoire de Franz Liszt. The cycle derives its inspiration from both Liszt and Balakirev. Kentner’s pianistic prowess is more than a match for the formidable virtuosic demands the work presents, yet he doesn’t make technique the be all and end all, but puts it to the service of the music. He made a standalone recording of the opening Berceuse in March 1939, which is thankfully included here. The piece is the perfect opener, almost declaiming ‘once upon a time...’. Kentner invests it with poetry and grace. Ronde des fantômes, which follows, has some sparkling finger-work, and is rendered capricious and nimble. Térek is a scintillating tour-de-force in contrast with Nuit d'Été which radiates peace and calm. Tempête, with its Lisztian bravura, is given a feverish run for its money. The arpeggiated chords of Chant Épique have a diaphanous quality, and are voiced with bell-like purity. Lesghinka is an Islamey in miniature, and Kentner conveys its Russian character to perfection. The final piece Elégie en Mémoire de François Liszt sets the seal on a winning performance.

All are new transfers by Andrew Hallifax, and they have certainly injected a new lease of life into these old recordings. Jeremy Nicholas has provided the excellent, informative documentation. For me, it is the Lyapunov Études that are the biggest draw. As for the pianist, I’ll leave the last word to Menuhin: ‘Louis Kentner is one of the most generously cultivated of men ... a musician gifted with enormous talent, a wonderful pianist’.

Stephen Greenbank



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