The world loses pianist Brigitte Engerer and her unique blend of French elegance and Russian power


Brigitte Engerer (David Ademas/ France-Ouest photo).

(Update below)

Tunisian-born French pianist Brigitte Engerer died in Paris today, aged 59, announced her management, Concerts de Valmalète. The cause of death was not mentioned, but she had been battling cancer for the last couple of years.

Only 10 days ago, Engerer had celebrated the 50th anniversary of her professional début at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris — reprising the Piano Concerto by Robert Schumann that she had played there as a 9-year-old.

Engerer was accepted in to the Conservatoire in Paris as an 11-year-old. Defying convention, she continued her studies at the Moscow Conservatory in 1969.

She emerged as an artist capable of the velvety, “pearly” sound that the French tradition once mandated, blended with a Russian-style muscularity and depth. She was known for her particularly fine performances of great Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Rachmaninov.

Engerer’s career took off when she was picked by conductor Herbert von Karajan to star in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s 100th anniversary celebrations. That opened doors around the world, including a New York Philharmonic début with Zubin Mehta.

In recent years, she was best known with her piano-duo collaborations with Russian pianist Boris Berezovsky.

Her main Russian teacher, Stanislas Neuhaus, described her as “one of the most brilliant and original pianists of her generation.” He said  that his pupil had, “an innate talent to connect with her audience.” She, in turn, always gave him credit for opening her eyes and ears to the intersections of visual art, poetry, history and music.

In an interview a few years ago, she spoke of her love of collaborative work and, especially, chamber music. “I love to melt into the sounds and colours of the other so that I can then nourish them with my own,” she said.

Engerer had a warm, gregarious, energetic personality — as well as a fine sense of humour — that permeated everything she did. She only took on concerts and collaborations that suited her personal passions, and which she translated directly into the music she made. She collected every arts honour that can be bestowed by her country, and was considered practically a national treasure in France.

Besides her concert and recording engagements, which she had reduced recently, Engerer had been teaching at the Paris Conservatoire for the past eight years.

Her sister-in-law is pianist Anne Queffélec. She is survived by her husband, Prix Goncourt winner Yann Queffélec, a daughter and a son.

The pianist was fortunate to be in demand during the golden era of big-label digital recordings, which resulted in a series of albums for Harmonia Mundi that are probably still considered to be among the gold standards for the interpretation of the piano music of Robet Schumann and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

She was one of the rare pianists to dare make eloquent sense of Franz Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, which joined her extensive discography with the French label Mirare a couple of years ago (all of her piano-duo recordings with Berezovsky are on this label, as well).

UPDATE (June 27):

Radio France classical broadcaster France Musique presented two shows in memoriam of Engerer yesterday — both of which are available for streaming until July 26.

The afternoon broadcast concentrated on live performance, first re-airing a 2004 recital from the Théâtre des Bouffes, then turning to Engerer playing Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto at the Bastille opera house in 1992 with the Radio France Philharmonic and conductor Marek Janowsky.

Her playing is remarkable for its musicality and elegance — even if, in the 2004 recital, one hears a few too many wrong notes. The Beethoven concerto is sublime.

The recital programme consisted of Franz Liszt’s transcriptions of three Schubert Lieder (Der Doppelgänger N°13 D 957, Ständchen N°4 D 957 and Die Stadt N°11 D 957), Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, five excerpts from György Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata, three pieces by Frédéric Chopin (two Nocturnes and the fourth Ballade). The encore is Chiarina and Chopin from Schumann’s Carnaval.

You can listen to this broadcast here.

The second broadcast includes conversations with Anne Quéffelec and cellist Henri Demarquette, a frequent chamber-music partner. Both speak eloquently of her absolute commitment to communicating the beauty of music, as well as of her wonderful sense of humour — “with Brigitte, I was either laughing or crying,” said Demarquette at one point.

The programme features three gorgeous concerti: Richard Strauss’s Burleske (with the French National Orchestra and conductor Charles Dutoit), Camille Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 with L’Orchestre de Paris and conductor Riccardo Chailly (this is, in my opinion, one of the most engaging performances of this French staple that I’ve heard) and Tchaikovsky’s First (from a Mirare recording).

You can catch the stream of this broadcast here.

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Here she is with Berezovsky three years ago, playing Rachmaninov’s transcription of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Suite:

In a completely different vein, here is Engerer tackling some modern-instrument Bach with the chamber orchestra Arca XX1 and its conductor Dyonisios Dervis-Bournias:

John Terauds

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