Saturday, 26 September 2015

Review: Louis Kentner plays Liszt - Vox Legends, 1992, 2 CD

 Amazing recordings of a very unjustly forgotten Lisztian

My introduction to Louis Kentner (1905-1987) was rather unusual, namely his two compelling chapters in an excellent (though a little dated) volume of essays entirely dedicated to Liszt and edited by Alan Walker himself.[1] Only later did I discover that, in addition to a fine writer, Louis Kentner also was an outstanding pianist. Unfortunately, very few of his recordings are currently available, virtually all of them second-hand. This double disc is one of the few I could find and now, having listened to it quite a number of times, I cannot recommend it highly enough to everybody seriously interested in Liszt's piano music.

To begin with a few quibbles, the CD is pretty poorly presented. The documentation is appallingly sloppy: no recording dates, let alone locations, are given. The only indication about the time of recording is a short note that these recordings were issued on LP in the 1960s and early 1970s. Well, this is what you can find on the back cover – inside the booklet the years are ''late 1950s and early 1960s''. Which is the true statement is anybody's guess, though the former looks more probable. The booklet itself is a strange mixture of perceptive liner notes and hackneyed clichés about Liszt's notorious dualities (the genius-charlatan stuff, you know), to say nothing of the very short biographical note of Louis Kentner that is even more perfunctory than the one in Wikipedia (which is miserable enough).[2] Among the liner notes, however, despite few muddled passages about the history or the identity of certain compositions, there are some valuable passages such as extended analyses of the Don Juan Fantasy and the Faust Waltz including the exact parts from Mozart's and Gounod's operas, respectively, that inspired them.

Another caveat to be kept in mind is, of course, the sound. The back cover boasts ''digitally remastered from original analog tapes'' and the sound is indeed very clean and with a fine dynamic range. But the balance is pretty shaky: the high register is almost always clangy and the bass is not a little overblown. For an early stereo, whatever the year, it is not a bad achievement, but I daresay VOX might have done a better job. Never mind. As soon as you hear Kentner's playing, you wouldn't care at all about sonic imperfections.

The discs are not especially well-filled (64:35, 64:29), but they contain an amazingly varied program which is most probably the best illustration of Liszt's versatility in so limited a space.

The first disc consists entirely of original compositions, ranging in time from Harmonies poetiques and religuieses (1833-34) and the first piece from Apparitions (1834) to La Lugubre gondola (1882, the first piece of that name) and Nuages gris (1881, also known as Trübe Wolken); in other words, ranging from Liszt's middle twenties to his early seventies. The range of moods is equally startling. Elegy No. 2 and especially Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude are among Liszt's most lyrical creations, whereas Ballade No. 2 is surely among his most dramatic and full of grand Romantic rhetoric works. Harmonies poetiques and religuieses must not be mistaken with the cycle of ten pieces that bears the same name but was composed more than a decade later. Incidentally, Benediction... is the third piece of this cycle whereas the fourth, Pensee des Morts, is an extensive reworking of part of the original Harmonies poetiques and religuieses. It is wonderful to find here the vastly under-recorded early piece. It is way more daring and sometimes so reminiscent of Liszt's late works that it is all the more difficult to convince oneself that he actually was 22-23 years old when he composed it.

The second disc is (almost) entirely dedicated to Liszt's arrangements of music by others which cover the whole ground between more or less straightforward transcriptions (the Spinning Song) to elaborate paraphrases based on several motives from one or more operas (such as Valse de Concert on themes by Donizetti and the celebrated Faust Waltz which Gounod himself could never have dreamed of) to stunning fantasies which compress whole operas into one piano piece with unmatched skill and are for all purposes original compositions (such as the Don Juan Fantasy, of course). As a special bonus, there are Four Little Piano Pieces of charming delicacy: a stark contrast with the scintillating bravura of the arrangements indeed. It might be useful here to remind the curious Lisztian that these lovely little pieces are also known as Fünf Klavierstücke (these four plus one more, check Leslie Howard, 
vol. 11) and since they were composed in the course of no fewer than 14 years (1865-1879), they were never intended as a cycle. If any of these pieces sounds vaguely familiar to you, this is probably due to the fact that the second one was derived from the second piece of another, much more famous set: Liebesträume.

Describing the artistry of any pianist is difficult enough a business, and the result usually is a mess of highly subjective phrases and futile comparisons. But describing the playing of Louis Kentner is well-nigh impossible. By modern standards it is often eccentric, but who says that modern standards are the best ones? It should be remembered that Kentner was born as early as 1905, less than two decades after the death of Liszt himself when many of his pupils were still teaching and concertizing. In those historical times – a mere century ago, but to modern piano lovers they seems as ancient as the pyramids – the printed notes had not acquired the sacredness which is now bestowed on them, nor were tempo indications considered more important than expression and feeling.

Perhaps the most idiosyncratic interpretation of Louis Kentner here is the Benediction... for it is taken way faster than usual and has absolutely nothing in common with Arrau's intense lyricism or Bolet's ethereal serenity. In fact, Kentner's tumultuous passion reminds me of the young Brendel trying to break some Viennese instruments (again for VOX, incidentally) in the late 1950s. However, very much unlike Brendel indeed, Kentner doesn't use a sledgehammer in the climaxes and he easily achieves enormous sonority without any banging whatsoever. No less remarkable is the Don Juan Fantasy which is played with supreme panache yet with remarkable subtlety as well, combining the best features of Earl Wild's fiery virtuosity with Jorge Bolet's poised elegance. Despite at least one annoying cut (in the transition to the last part) and a good many sonic imperfections, this is certainly one of the finest renditions of this daunting piece I have ever heard. So, for that matter, is the Second Ballade: another combination of sweeping power and sensitive musicianship not often found in this piece.

All in all, unique and fascinating pianism from another era which you are as unlikely to encounter anywhere today as it is improbable to find another double CD which illustrates better the extraordinary range of forms and feelings mastered by Liszt. It is a shame that these marvellous recordings are not more easily accessible. From Naxos I am given to understand that Louis Kentner recorded a great deal of Liszt for VOX in the 1960s and 1970s – complete Transcendental Studies and Hungarian Rhapsodies, Paganini Etudes and more paraphrases – and I am stupefied that virtually of all of it, apparently, is impossible to be obtained. There are also some speculations about certain physical decline of Kentner in these recordings, for he was well in his sixties, but if he had any technical shortcomings at the time, he certainly managed very successfully to convert them in artistic advantages as I have never noticed them.

[1] Franz Liszt: the Man & His Music, Barrie & Jenkins, 1970.
[2] Much more extensive biography of Louis Kentner is available on the Naxos website.

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