Brahms: 4 Ballades, 2 Rhapsodies, 3 Intermezzi - Engeli
Ars Produktion ARS 38 250
Classical - Instrumental
Brahms: 4 Ballades, 2 Rhapsodies, 3 Intermezzi
Bach: Chaconne (arr. Brahms)
Benjamin Engeli (piano)
Review by Adrian Quanjer - April 2, 2018
Two years ago I heard Benjamin Engeli for the first time, taking no more notice than that he was, like the other members of the Zurich ensemble, an excellent ‘chambriste’ in Beyond Time - Zurich Ensemble. At that time it was the clarinetist, Fabio de Càsola, who stood in the spotlight for his solo part in Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Quator pour la Fin du Temps’. I’m glad I now have the opportunity to give my full attention to his solo album, recently released by ARS Produktion, in which he treats us on a late romantic Brahms recital, wrapped up with a clever piano transcription of Bach’s solo violin Chaconne BWV 1004 for the left hand!
Depending on repertoire, some pianists manifest a clear preference for a particular piano. In the world of ‘period players’ they can even be very outspoken at that. In the concert hall it’s the big sounding Steinway that carries off first choice, if only because it’s in most cases the standard option. For this recital, and notwithstanding the fact that a Steinway could have been put at his disposal, Engeli has chosen a Bösendorfer, as “it gave me nearly infinite possibilities to shape the quiet passages in highly different ways” (listen to the Three Intermezzi Op. 117).
Engeli must have realized that he entered a highly competitive field and that he would have to go the extra mile to make his voice heard. Already in the Super Audio domain there are seven contenders for the Ballads; eight for the Intermezzi, and ‘only’ four as regards the popular Rhapsodies. But (and with the exception of Marie-Josèphe Jude on Lyrinx, of which some copies are still available) he is the only one with Brahms’ transcription of Bach’s Chaconne BWV 1004. For this one alone, Engeli’s recital merits consideration. But there is more…
As for the Ballads, personal views and leanings play an important role. This applies to the interpreter and the listener alike. For the interpreter it is about choices to be made in understanding and the execution of the score, for listeners choosing and passing judgement between versions available. Hardy Rittner’s period account, appreciated by many, is in a different league and can therefore be set aside. What else matters? Going into specifics: The Ballads are a young man’s opus and though they give already proof of a certain dose of maturity, they ought to be fully treated as such: Poetry with a disturbing, dramatic undertone, commensurate with radicalism and anxious expectation. Dedicated to his friend Julius Otto Grimm, it would seem to me that the real inspiration relates to his encounter with Klara, Robert Schumann wife.
Though I have a soft spot for Zala Kravos’ youthful yet contemplative reading (Piano - Zala) , hers’ has not yet reached the point of completeness, which we find with Kozhukhin on Pentatone, or that of Plowright on BIS. In this field Engeli adds an interesting thought. In his notes he describes how he feels each ballad should be read, possibly showing lessons learned from his master classes with Maurizio Pollini, Lazar Berman and Andràs Schiff. And that is how he, in my view, ought to be judged: Very well played, with carefully measured passion, yet everything in perfect accordance with his book, as might have been expected from a pianist with a prominent teaching assignment.
The next two Rhapsodies, for most listeners familiar stuff, is attractively played with must gusto, in a perhaps too austere framework of precision and perfection. But moving on to the Intermezzi, we enter a different sphere. Here the Bösendorfer allows Engeli to create a wealth of colours, conveying to the listener, right from the beginning of the first of "three lullabies to my sorrows", a sense of emotional depth and tenderness suggesting more than lament. Engeli takes his time to let things sink in, like someone whispering at your ear, sometimes lovingly and sometimes insistently.
All in all a well-chosen and expertly recorded selection that may not set aside the above competition, but which will certainly appeal to a wide circle of followers on his home turf, Switzerland, and will also be worth considering for those wanting a first rate reading of the concluding piano transcription of Bach’s Chaconne BWV 1004 for the left hand.
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