An Enchanting Afternoon with Maximilian Hornung and Benjamin Engeli

CanadaCanada Schumann, Beethoven, Janacek, Richard Strauss: Maximillian Hornung (cello), Benjamin Engeli (piano), Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver, 27.9.2015 (GN)

Maximilian Hornung CR MarcoBorggreve

Schumann: Fünf Stücke im Volkston, Op. 102
Beethoven: Cello Sonata in A major, Op. 69
Janacek: Pohádka for Cello and Piano (1910)
Strauss: Cello Sonata in F major, Op. 6


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 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. It 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 aplenty, 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 it was a reading strong in personality and imagination.

I was equally intrigued by Janacek’s Pohádka (Fairytale) for Cello and Piano (1910), which is hardly ever performed. The piece may be early and slight (though revised three times) but is still quite individual, with the same distinctive voice 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  ̶  but 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 Richard Strauss’ Cello Sonata, having recently recorded it for Sony alongside Don Quixote (with Bernard Haitink and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra). This was a rewarding performance again, but what intrigued 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. I liked the first and last movements a great deal: the former structured purposively; 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 are artists who already have mature and individual perspectives on these works and are never short of interesting ideas. And they play so well together, even though it appears that Engeli is only one of the cellist’s partners. 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! What impressed me about Maximilian Hornung is the sheer number of things that he can do well  ̶  an enviable mixture of technical address, tonal sophistication and intelligence. Others have obviously thought that too, and I am certain he will end up a most celebrated cellist (if he is not verging on that already). But I also liked Benjamin Engeli a great deal: his pianism is alert and attentive to detail, and he often displays a lovely touch and a natural fluidity. It cannot be long before he gets real attention.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on

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