, July 2011
Benjamin Engeli, a Swiss pianist born in1978, takes on a lion’s share of challenging Beethoven masterpieces in this stunning new CD. The two muscular B♭-sonatas flank the lyrical two-movement sonata in F♯, which Beethoven dedicated to Theresa Brunsvik (one of the several plausible candidates for Beethoven’s unidentified “Immortal Beloved”). Engeli is superbly up to the challenge he has undertaken, both as proficient keyboard artist and sensitive musician.
Some background first: Engeli was born into a Swiss family of musicians; although he started learning various instruments as a youngster, he did not take regular piano lessons until he was 15—an amazingly late age to start developing a virtuoso piano technique, which Engeli has. His primary teacher was Homero Francesch at the College of Music in Zurich, and he also had lessons with some top-rank pianists, among them Lazar Berman, Pollini, and Schiff. His musical interests include ensemble playing; he is a founding member of the Tecchler Trio, and also one of the four young male pianists making up the Gershwin Piano Quartet (!), which has made recent tours in China and the United Arab Emirates. (There are some fascinating concert clips on YouTube; in their transcriptions of Gershwin songs, they have found some ingenious ways of adding percussive rhythmic effects to conventional keyboard playing.)
Energy flies in the opening movement of op. 22, tension generated in the terse opening motif as it is repeated up the keyboard. Engeli’s playing has remarkable clarity, no matter how dense the texture (as in the “Hammerklavier” fugue); this is owing in part to his ability to stretch large intervals and voice important notes, and judicious use of the sustaining pedal. The Adagio of op. 22 is in a well-chosen tempo that moves forward, but although beautifully played, with a singing melody, it sometimes seemed a little impersonal. In the opening movement of op. 78, on the other hand, Engeli plays with heartfelt expression, and emphasizes the dynamic contrasts appearing constantly throughout the movement. The second movement, with its feathery figuration, is lighthearted, and Engeli renders every dynamic mark of Beethoven’s with complete fidelity.
The mighty “Hammerklavier” is magnificent, performed with stunning technical facility. Again, his tempos seem just right: The first movement is remarkably close to Beethoven’s metronome marking, at least at the start ( there are constant changes of tempo indicated throughout the movement.) The contrasts between the intense, forceful main theme and the passages of contrasting cantabile writing are sharply delineated. The slow movement of this sonata—surely one of the most beautiful and profound of Beethoven’s creations—tests the ability of a performer (and a listener as well) to sustain a long Adagio through the permutations of an extensive sonata form. Beethoven’s intense feeling in this movement is seen in further directions following the heading Adagio sostenuto; the pianist is to play Appassionato e con molto sentimento, to use the “una corda” (soft) pedal, and play at mezza voce. Further notations in the score reiterate the demand for expression—at one point, con grand’ espressione. That Engeli succeeds in following Beethoven’s intentions, and delivers a most compelling performance, is high praise for this young artist.
I was often reminded of the Beethoven performances of the pianist whom I greatly admire—the late Annie Fischer. For one thing, the timings of each movement are remarkably similar for both pianists; but more importantly, I hear in Engeli’s playing the same qualities that inform Fischer’s playing: a musical integrity that emphasizes musical values above all; a vigorous energy that sweeps the listener along; and expression that is ardent but tastefully restrained.
Excellently recorded, and warmly recommended.