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Piano by Louis Kentner
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Louis Kentner

Piano

Kahn & Averill Publishers, Paperback, 2005.

8vo. 204 pp. Yehudi Menuhin Music Guides. Editor's Introduction by Yehudi Menuhin [p. 1]. A Letter, by Way of Introduction by the author [pp. 3-7].

First published, 1976.
First published by Kahn & Averill, 1991.
Reprinted, 1993, 1996, 2002, 2005.

Contents

Editor's Introduction by Yehudi Menuhin
A Letter, by Way of Introduction
1. Apology, by Way of Further Introduction


PART ONE: UNDERSTANDING THE PIANO

2. The Instrument

3. The Structure of the Piano

The action: key, hammer and strings
The sound-board
The iron frame
The outer case
The pedal

4. Equal Temperament and Tuning
5. A Little Bit of History


PART TWO: PLAYING THE PIANO

6. Aspects of Technique
Seat and connected topic
Muscular freedom
The 'piano hand'
The position while playing
Breathing
Fingers
Weight and relaxation
Shoulders
Arms
Trill and Vibrato
Conclusions

7. On Pedalling, Considered as a Fine Art
The 'loud' pedal
The pedal as the soul of the piano
Timing
Pedal vibrato
The use of the pedal
The 'soft' and sostenuto pedals

8. Two 'Fallacies': Singing Tone and Legato
9. Intermezzo One: On Teachers and Teaching
10. Intermezzo Two: On Practising

11. The Piano Combined with Other Instruments

Chamber music
Piano and voice
The concerto
Music for two pianos and duets

12. A Note on Mechanical Reproduction

PART THREE: THE GREAT PIANOFORTE COMPOSERS

13. Beethoven: The Thirty-Two Piano Sonatas
The sonatas in general
The biographical significance of the sonatas
Sonata form
The early period
The middle period
The transition period
The late sonatas
The Diabelli variations
Practical conclusions

14. Chopin
Those before him
Chopin, the great pianist
The concerti
The sonatas
Chopin, the miniaturist
The preludes
The studies
The ballades
Rubato and agogic devices
The scherzi
The Fantasia in F minor
Chopin today

15. Liszt
The influence of those before him
Liszt, the pianist
The studies
Transcriptions and paraphrases
The Sonata in B Minor
The works with orchestra
The Hungarian Rhapsodies
Later trends
Conclusions

16. ...And After

Epilogue

Some selected further reading
Discography
Index


==================================================​

The table of contents of this little and not especially well presented book is so extensive that it is actually self-explanatory. Before making some desultory remarks, I should like to make it clear that I am the wrong person to do so. As obvious from the above list, this is a book for aspiring pianists, especially would-be professionals, or at least about musicians who can read music fluently. Since I am neither, I cannot do justice to the book by default. Nevertheless, I have tried.

Having read and being completely fascinated by Mr Kentner's two chapters in Franz Liszt: The Man and His Music (1970, ed. Alan Walker), I have to say that this little book is not quite on par with these essays. But nor is it so much inferior to them indeed. Actually, my only serious complain is the rather perfunctory treatment of some areas, most notably the historical development of the piano (and its structure too, for that matter) and some of the most important composers for the instrument (most notably Mozart and Rachmaninoff). Perhaps Mr Kentner was limited by the exigencies of the series, and he indeed flatly says in his introductory remarks that his aim was not to give a detailed historical account of how the concert grand came to be what it is. Despite that, his treatment of the subject is a little too perfunctory to be engaging, even though Chapter 5 starts with a most charming bit of humour:

God created the violin on the first day of creation, and it has remained virtually unchanged ever since. Not so the piano.

In his fascinating ''Letter, by Way of Introduction'', Mr Kentner brilliantly defends himself against some criticisms he fully expected while writing the book. The chief of these is that there are only three composers discussed in some detail while many other great names in the piano history (Haydn, Mozart, Weber, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, to name but a few) are mentioned in passing or hardly at all. This accusation is effectively demolished by Mr Kentner's simple statement that this is a book about the piano, not a comprehensive overview of the piano literature. This is of course quite true but it only makes the sketchy treatment of the history and the mechanism of the piano more inexcusable.

But it is really charming to read Mr Kentner's arguments why he left out so many great composers: they are worth considering. Weber and Schubert were at their best in the opera and the song, respectively, and Mendelssohn in the choral works - none of them, at any rate, would have been remembered on the strength of his piano compositions only. As regards Schumann and Brahms Mr Kentner is not so convincing but his honesty is touching. The former he regards as a ''young man's composer'' and his passion for him had burnt itself out quite some time ago; as for Brahms, Mr Kentner never felt any high affinity for his solo piano music, and his best work were done in the chamber sphere anyway. So far so good: I fully concur. But the omission of Mozart (except for short and insignificant discussion on his piano concerti) and the complete neglect of Rachmaninoff (save some cold praise of his works) I regard as unforgivable and here Mr Kentner gives next to nothing by way of explanation, except a generous praise of Rachmaninoff - as a pianist. In his last chapter, he touches briefly on Ravel and Debussy, but is quite convinced that Prokofieff and Bartok may be dispensed with without any loss: I concur again.

While the first part is the most insignificant and disappointing, the second is probably the largest and most important. Unfortunately, it is the most specialised as well. Music examples are fairly rare but do occur, and there are some passages which do require a good deal of knowledge about harmony and other similarly esoteric matters. That said, the part is surprisingly readable, and even enjoyable, for somebody who can neither read music nor play the piano. I daresay passionate young virtuosos would find some wise advice here as regards every aspect of piano playing: from the right breathing to the secrets of pedalling. The latter is perhaps the most absorbing part from those which the layman may be expected to find dull. If phrases like ''the soul of the piano'' and ''fine art'' seem to him much too grand to be attached to the pedals of the piano, he needn't believe Mr Kentner. All he needs to do is to go to a children's concert where all pianists are too young to reach the pedals. I once did and it was a tremendous revelation. Until then I had never realised how infinitely important for the sound production the pedals of the piano really are. I fully believe Mr Kentner that they are the main reason, though not the only one, why different pianists sound utterly unlike one another even when playing the same music on the same instrument. If the sound of piano played with clever use of the pedals is one of the most beautiful things in the world, piano played without any use of the pedals is surely one of the ugliest.

Future readers, especially pianists, of this book whose education has been badly neglected should know that Mr Kentner was primarily a pianist of stupendous technique and rare artistry, as his numerous recordings (of Liszt, for instance) amply testify. He modestly tells his readers that he offers no complete method but merely a piece of advice based on performance and study. At any rate, his erudite observations are rooted in a great deal of experience and are certainly worth pondering upon.

The amazing thing is that Mr Kentner is also a fine writer, and in a language which is not his native one: he was born in Hungary and only in his thirties (I think) settled in England. As a non-native speaker who has tried to master this language for years, I cannot but have a lot of admiration about Mr Kentner's remarkable lucidity, often enlivened by a delightful sense of humour. I also have a good deal of sympathy when his writing does occasionally tend to be slightly overwritten, heaping one clause onto another and playing dangerous games with punctuation. I understand only too well. Above all, however, what for my part makes a writing style worth reading is a combination of two factors: author's sincerity of opinion and his stating clearly something thought-provoking. Mr Kentner has both.

Now the third part of the book is by far the most fascinating one for the layman. The gem here is a magnificent discussion of all 32 of Beethoven's sonatas, surely one of the most amazing examples of musical evolution there is. My only quibble is that occasionally Mr Kentner is prone to fawning. Admittedly, it is difficult to write about such colossal genius as Beethoven without being a trifle overwhelmed and turn purple, but the fact is that Beethoven, too, was an uneven composer. At least I still find his Violin Concerto mediocre and his Triple one almost unbearably dull. Nor are all his 32 piano sonatas of equal merit of course. But this is missing the point - something Mr Kentner never does. He puts the works in their right historical context and always keeps the big picture in front of the reader. It goes without saying that a complete recording ought to be on your shelves too, unless of course you know the sonatas by heart. Only then, guided by Mr Kentner's succinct commentary, can you appreciate Beethoven's simply unbelievable development. Indeed, it is difficult to comprehend that it was the same man who composed the Pathetique, the Appassionata and the Hammerklavier, yet it happens to be true.

Chopin and Liszt, alas, do not enjoy such lavish treatment as the old Ludwig. This is perhaps inevitable since the variety here is just staggering. So ballades, preludes, scherzi, etudes, polonaises, on the one hand, and Transcendental Studies, Hungarian Rhapsodies and the B minor Sonata, on the other hand, have to be dealt with each in a single paragraph, or two at most. Generally, Mr Kentner does manage to say something interesting and often fascinating about any of these groups of compositions and, I don't know about the professional pianist, but the ordinary layman may well profit by his reflections. For example, his advice that Chopin's polonaises should be played with a good deal of brio, and even swagger, really should be taken by some pianists - and not exaggerated by others.

There are, for instance, some very insightful historical touches. Most notable here is the notion, no doubt a true one, that Liszt's revolution of piano playing, coming as it did after Chopin's, was one of degree rather than of substance. It is a matter of endless fascination, indeed, how Liszt would have developed had Chopin never existed. Mr Kentner is also very perceptive on the development of Chopin's marvellous genius: unique and precocious as it was, it was not entirely without any foundation, as sometimes suggested by overly romantic souls, for there were at least Hummel, Field and Weber before that. It goes without saying, of course, that Mr Kentner never downplays Chopin's astounding originality.

And Mr Kentner often has such a charming way with words. How tantalising, for instance, to see the finale of Chopin's Second Sonata compared to a horror story of Edgar Allan Poe. (Now here is an excellent recommendation to finally read some of Poe's stories.) My favourite bits of Mr Kentner's prose here are his touching, and vastly amusing, defence of Chopin's most popular works (waltzes and nocturnes) and his provocative summation of Liszt's and Chopin's relation to their beloved instrument (which comes after the even more controversial statement, in which Mr Kentner declares to be backed up by a number of pianists, that Chopin's music, purely pianistic as it is, does not "flow from the fingers" as comfortably as Liszt's does).

The fact that these waltzes, some of which are full of charm, wit and brilliance, appealed to a middlebrow Victorian bourgeoisie, should not be brought as a criminal charge against them. Nor should the nocturnes, exquisite lyrical effusions, suffer critical degradation because sentimental young ladies used them, in days long gone by, to comfort their repressed libido.

In short, Chopin demanded from the piano only what he knew was possible, but did not always get it; Liszt demanded everything, including the seemingly impossible, and nearly always got it.


That said, there are in this last part several disappointing moments as well.

I was disappointed, and rather surprised, to read Mr Kentner's claim that Chopin's mazurkas are better left to Polish pianists who have in their blood the peculiar rhythmic pattern that these gems require. I have never been able to convince myself that this ''musical nationalism'' is anything but pure nonsense. To be sure, a conductor born in Moscow and raised in St Petersburg will probably conduct Tchaikovksy's symphonies in a very different manner than one born and raised in Barcelona, for example. But to claim that the former is more ''authoritative'' or more ''authentic'' than the latter is bogus, especially in our largely globalised times today. But never mind the globalisation anyway. Whatever merits and defects the performance of any music by anybody may or may not have, they should be estimated regardless of his origin or education or character or any other extra-musical and irrelevant matters. To limit your musical experience by such petty prejudices as nationality seems to me a very foolish thing to do. How do you know that Strauss' waltzes wouldn't profit from an interpretation by somebody born and raised in Argentina?

Another caveat is that sometimes even the wonderful conciseness of Mr Kentner's style cannot save him from being extremely perfunctory. At one place he "discusses" two of Liszt's largest and most important sets of pieces is just half a page! This is simply unacceptable. Mr Kentner either should have expanded this passage quite a bit, or he should have omitted it completely. Liszt's transcriptions and paraphrases suffer very much from the same thing. The best excuse, a rather lame one, that can be found for Mr Kentner here is that the complexity of the subject is enormous and completely precludes discussion in so short a space.

All in all, despite a number of passages which do look rushed and superficial, perhaps due more to limitations of the series than of Mr Kentner's style, there is a wealth of insightful observations in this little book. The first part is the only one disappointing on the whole: it really should have been done much more thoroughly. However, in the other two parts Mr Kentner's wit and wisdom, as well as his refreshing candour, do compensate for his occasional superficiality of discussion or controversy of opinion.

It's good that this book is back in print. In addition to whatever intrinsic value it may or may not have, it is a spectacular example of another, long-forgotten era in which the main purpose of music was to express the personality of both the composer and the performer. The false modesty that the latter should be a servant of the former is a modern notion, and the last excuse of many a mediocre artist whose personalities have next to nothing to offer. Mr Kentner has nothing to fear here, either in his writings or in his recordings. I wonder how many of today's smashing virtuosos think so deeply, not just about polishing their technique, but about the recreation of the music they play as a living thing, to say nothing of reading anything of the vast literature on history of piano playing and composition. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Nov 3, 2011 |
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