MAXIMILIAN HORNUNG AND BENJAMIN ENGELI: AN ENCHANTING DUO
Maximillian Hornung, cello; Benjamin Engeli, piano: Works by Schumann, Beethoven, Janacek and Richard Strauss, Playhouse, September 27, 2015.
A Sunday afternoon concert of romantic cello works certainly takes one away from the usual day-to-day concert bustle, especially when played with as much involvement and expertise as we saw here. Though still young, cellist Maximilian Hornung and pianist Benjamin Engeli play together as seasoned veterans, and they provided a wonderful survey of different styles of cello composition from Beethoven and Schumann to Janacek and Richard Strauss. The 29 year old cellist is a certainly a performer on the rise, having already recorded 11 CDs for Sony and CPO since winning the German Music Council’s Competition in 2005. He received ECHO Klassik prizes for his first Sony CD in 2011 and his recording of the Dvořák Concerto in 2012. As the concert progressed, what impressed me was the sheer range of his technique and tone colour, and his intelligence.
Schumann’s Fünf Stücke im Volkston (Five Pieces in the Popular Style), published in 1851, are not something we hear very often and it was a delight to see a live performance. They are essentially companion miniatures to the Drei Romanzen, Op. 94, and Fantasiestücke, Op. 73. All allow substitutions in the lead instrument, and all manage to convey a peaceful, relaxed beauty, not least in their cello versions. The second and third pieces of Fünf Stücke im Volkston have lovely melodies, and here Hornung and Engeli exhibited the right type of sensitivity, finding intimacy and sweetness in the former, and a fine sense of repose in the latter. There was robust enthusiasm in the fourth, and throughout I noted both the plasticity and precision in the cellist’s articulation. Also of interest was the way he controlled his tone colour through the selective presence or absence of vibrato. This was particularly notable in the third piece, where Hornung achieved a high, whispering, vibrato-less tone, perhaps a debt to ‘authentic’ traditions. The only qualification might be that the duo’s finish was sometimes too emphatic in structurally-cogent passages.
There was a great deal of light, clean playing in the Schumann, and this continued in the famous Beethoven Sonata, Op. 69. This was not as long-breathed and firm as it sometimes is, being more mercurial and capricious from the outset. This brought an attractive spring-like ardour to the development and, in particular, a lovely Mendelssohnian sparkle from the piano. The Scherzo had play and animation aplently, and as we moved on, it again became clear just how sophisticated the cellist’s control over texture and vibrato is. The pianist consistently revealed a fine touch and a nice sense of expositional space as well. The finale brought all sorts of revealing contrasts in expression and dynamics, but here I sometimes felt there were just so many of these that the performance was in danger of over-sophistication. Nonetheless, the ending was brilliant. Perhaps this was not echt-Beethoven, but still a reading strong in personality and imagination.
I was equally intrigued by Janacek’s Pohádka (Fairytale) for Cello and Piano (1910), since this is hardly ever performed. The work may be early and slight (though revised three times) but is still individual, having the same distinctive voice as one finds in the composer’s piano work In the Mists. The extent of cello pizzicato in this work is noteworthy -- and finely-drawn it was too. What left a strong impression was the way Benjamin Engeli found just the right sort of rhapsodic, melancholic sweep in the piano to allow the nerve ends of these pieces to be exposed. The cellist could set all his little repeated figures, ostinato and yearning expressions against a rich emotional backdrop.
The cellist is no stranger to the Richard Strauss’ Cello Sonata, having recently recorded it for Sony alongside Don Quixote (with Bernard Haitink and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra). What amazed me from the outset was just how tonally strong Hornung could be: his output must have been one and a half times richer and weightier than in the previous works. This was a fine performance and I liked the first and last movements a great deal; the former strong and purposive; the latter full of the right youthful ardour and attack, with joy and enthusiasm popping up at every turn. The pianist certainly added to this, supplying both animation and poetry. I got a less clear picture of the Andante: it is supposed to be Mendelssohn-derived but its opening struck me as pure Beethoven (Cello Sonata, Op. 5, No. 1). This is perhaps all well and good, except that the movement was eventually softened and shaded too much to fully hold its line.
I really enjoyed this concert: a rich and varied programme from two particularly engaging performers. Young as they are, these artists already have mature and individual perspectives on these works, never short of interesting ideas. Sometimes I thought that either or both might have been a little too eager to bring musical points home, and could relax more – but that is presumably what youth is about! Maximilian Hornung can do so many things well – an enviable mixture of technical address, tonal sophistication, and intelligence – and it is not surprising how high a reputation he has already. Benjamin Engeli’s pianism is alert and attentive to detail and he often displays a lovely touch and a natural fluidity. It will be most interesting to watch these artist’s future development.
© Geoffrey Newman 2015