BALAKIREV: Piano Sonata in b-flat minor; Reverie; Mazurka No. 6 in A-flat Major; Islamey; LISZT: Sonata in b; LYAPUNOV: Etude 1 “Berceuse” 12 Etudes d’execution transcendente – Louis Kentner, p. – Appian Recordings

APR resissues the Columbia shellacs of Louis Kentner, 1944-45, in Liszt, Balakirev, and Lyapunov.

BALAKIREV: Piano Sonata in b-flat minor, Op. 5; Reverie; Mazurka No. 6 in A-flat Major; Islamey; LISZT: Sonata in b; LYAPUNOV: Etude 1 “Berceuse;” 12 Etudes d’execution transcendente, Op. 11 – Louis Kentner, p. – Appian Recordings APR 6020 (2 CDs) 70:41, 72:19 (9/2/16) [Distr. by Naxos] ****: 

Executive producer Michael Spring, along with audio engineer Andrew Hallifax, deserves credit for this APR reissue of rare performances. Hungarian piano virtuoso Louis (Lajos) Kentner (1905-1987), whose records of Balakirev, Liszt, and Lyapunov from 1939-1949 come back to us in sterling remasterings.

The Balakirev Piano Sonata (1900-1905), here in its first recording (2 June 1949), proffers a hybrid work of unorthodox construction, rife with exotic colors and folk motifs, a novel fusion of Chopin and Eastern doxology. Despite the often improvisatory gestures and sudden shifts of tempo and mood, Balakirev injects strong periods of strict counterpoint, as well as knotty figurations more than reminiscent of his most popular piece, Islamey. The music contains a plethora of warm, tender gestures, many of which lie high in the piano keyboard and remind us of Chopin’s Berceuse. The more explosive passages, galloping in double octaves and liquid runs, might pay as much to Anton Rubinstein as they do to Liszt. The third movement, Intermezzo: Larghetto, reveals the liquid intimacy Kentner coaxes from his chosen instrument, while the music enjoys a nostalgic languor that we could easily mistake for Borodin. A Russian dance infiltrates the final movement; and more than once we can hear both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov in the alternately nostalgic, dashing, and volcanic figures.

The Reverie (15 June 1944) and Mazurka (14 April 1944) conform to the salon forms typical of Chopin and Liszt. The Reverie in F Major contains Russian elements – close to Anton Rubinstein – and ornaments, even a cadenza, much in the Liszt manner. The ostinato bass pattern under a chromatic melodic line bows to the Orient. The Mazurka No. 6 in A-flat Major invokes a muezzin call to prayer in a style we have come to associate with Ippolitov-Ivanov. The dance impulse follows the Polish national style, in triple time, but saturated with exotic harmonies. Mid-way the harmonic shifts and stretti become more drastic despite the Polish rhythm so that Balakirev can modulate into krakowiak in duple time. Ravel, of course, worshipped Balakirev’s Islamey (14 June 1944) as the ne plus ultra of keyboard music which his Gaspard meant to surpass. Kentner opens the piece (in b-flat minor) with confident aggression, moving through its labyrinthine tempo changes with fluid grace and landing on the second, oriental subject in D Major.   Some of Kentner’s adjustments to the score may irritate purists. Still, the performance has perfume and allure, surely as erotic and thrilling as any Eastern costume piece with Cornell Wilde. The liquid transparency of effect testifies to Kentner’s canny pedal in the midst of thick block chords. The last pages give us stunning bravura, a digital cornucopia of effect.

After Kentner’s arrival in Britain in 1935, various circumstances led to his series of Liszt recordings in celebration of the composer’s fiftieth year after his death in 1886.  “It helped me…to discover in myself a latent affinity with Liszt’s music.” The recording of the mighty b minor Sonata (28 May and 4 June 1948) by Kentner – now transcribed to CD format after a hiatus since 1951 on LP – has many moments of stupendous vitality and conviction, brilliant filigree, and poetic musing. The reading has a propulsion quite familiar to those who know the later work by Gyorgy Cziffra.  The alternately mercurial and demonic aspects of the score receive ‘equal temperament’ from Kentner, who is not averse to employing his sustaining pedal to underline the massive textures, especially the F-sharp Major “transcendent” theme. At the time of Kentner’s first recording of this score (23-24 August 1946), only three prior versions existed: those by Cortot, Horowitz, and Cor de Groot. While Kentner himself judged the present (1948) interpretation “too episodic,” the emotional continuity seems to me unbroken, a series of migrations of the soul that confirm the judgment of Omar Khayyam, that we ourselves are “Heaven and Hell.”

Sergey Lyapunov (1859-1924) composed his twelve Transcendental Etudes (1897-1905) as a chromatic complement to those of Franz Liszt, who had omitted any in ‘sharp’ keys. Generally, Lyapunov rejects much of the modernism of his contemporaries Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Varese, Busoni, and Debussy, and rather remains faithful to the late Romantic tradition and Russian liturgical sonorities.  In obeisance to Liszt, Lyapunov fused that composer’s bravura tradition to a clear sense of Russian of folk and melodic elements. The opening Berceuse in Fsharp Major – first recorded as a solo piece by Kentner 7 March 1939 – employs an ostinato figure in broken chords similar to pieces by John Field and Frederic Chopin, and certainly Liszt’s Consolation in D-flat. While a student at the Moscow Conservatory, Lyapunov wrote a Fantasy in e-flat minor, the basis of his second Etude, “The Dance of the Ghosts.” Kentner renders the eighth-note triplets in wizardly fashion, with both hands moving in contrary motion. The modal harmony created by the (dominant) natural minor key gives the music an eerie, antique sound. The Carillon Etude resorts to the Russian penchant for bells in huge sonorities, here in the manner of a hymn, although some of the opening reminds us of the last movement from Rachmaninov’s Suite for Two Pianos, Op. 5.

The so-called Terek Etude takes its cue from the poet Lermontov, who describes the “wild and wicked” River Terek, flowing to the Caspian in tempestuous agogics and later broken-octave passages with wide leaps. Liszt’s La Ricordanza may be a distant relative of Lyapunov’s Nuit d’ete, an anxious nocturne that hovers around A-flat Major. Kentner’s long, suave trills suggest that the summer night may have been spent in Glinka’s Madrid. The Tempest Etude looks to both Liszt’s Orage and his F Minor Etude. Kentner’s rotating chords achieve a demonic fluidity, the melody’s appearing – like much of Brahms – in the thumb of the right hand. In three parts and coda, the Idyll presents a pastoral landscape, likely a nostalgic portrait of the composer’s home village. Like Grieg, Lyapunov invokes a shepherd’s pipe late in the piece. The Chant epique invokes the Bylina, an epic song from the ninth and twelfth centuries of resistance to invaders, the kind of image we have in Eisenstein’s Alexandre Nevsky. Kentner alternately strums, chants, and then – via galloping horse staccatos in the manner of Liszt’s Mazeppa – invokes a major, highly syncopated battlefield.  The piece ends with a patriotic dance of triumph. Liszt’s last etude, Chasse-neige seems to have inspired Harpes eoliennes, a kind of surreal toccata mostly in sixty-fourth notes and in competing time signatures, 9/8 and 6/8. Kentner’s challenge is to shift registers and shades of color to maintain interest in the piece’s solitary theme.

The Etude No. 10 Lesginka recreates a male-solo courtship dance of a Mohammedan tribe of the Caucasus, and Glinka used it in Act IV of Ruslan and Ludmila. The most familiar of the Lyapunov etudes, the music attains the kind of violence we hear in Islamey, with similar Eastern syncopations.  With a gradual evolution to D-flat Major, Lyapunov is ready to introduce the female’s “response” to the male imperative, Poco piu tranquillo, in the manner of one of Borodin’s dances from Prince Igor. Kentner truly blazes his way through this piece, concluding with a stellar flourish. The Ronde de sylphes (No. 11) obviously imitates Liszt’s Feux follets. The elegance of Kentner’s playing finds a complement in the vehemence he can evoke without distortion. The constant use of double-note patterns involves all sorts of inversions, repeats, and transpositions. For his final Etude, “en memoire de Francois Liszt,” Lyapunov quotes the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 1.  Marked Lento capriccioso, the piece exacts from Kentner a sense of the majestic and nobly sublime. Lyapunov then transitions to Liszt’s own Etude No. 6 Vision (in g minor) as a source for painting a colossal and heroic image of Liszt himself. That Liapunov wished to fuse the Liszt virtuoso tradition to the folk and Eastern heritage of Russian music becomes undeniable, especially in the face of Kentner’s epic-making recording.

—Gary Lemco

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