Sebastian Bohren & Benjamin Engeli — Duo Recital
J. Brahms, L. Janáček, R. Strauss

Semper-Aula, ETH Zurich, 2015-10-13

4-star rating

2015-10-16 — Original posting
2015-10-17 — Added link to separate posting on the Brahms sonata
2016-08-09 — Brushed up for better readability

Table of Contents


The “Semper Aula” in the main building of the ETH (Federal Institute of Technology) in Zurich is a concert venue with a special atmosphere. Together with the entire building, it was built 1859 – 1868, based upon design plans by Gottfried Semper (1810 – 1879, the architect who also built the “Semper Opera” in Dresden / Germany). To this day I t remains in the original state at the end of the construction time. The room was intended for smaller-scale celebrations, such as the presentation of academic diplomas and prizes. Unfortunately, the decoration of the room never reached completion (most of the frescos are in a draft or raw sketch state).

But the room is a listed architectural monument. It therefore is subject to stringent restrictions in usage. The maximum allowed number of audience seats is 99 (!). The protection explicitly forbids alterations in the furniture or in the installations (e.g., for better lighting, etc.). On dark winter evenings (and the weather was muddy during this concert), this may cause the venue to feel somewhat gloomy, maybe mysterious. In this concert, however, the venue was full, and the relative darkness, combined with the scarce lighting around the artists, created an intimate atmosphere. This focused the listener’s attention onto the playing of the two musicians.

The Artists

Sebastian Bohren (*1987) is living in Zurich. He is a member of various chamber music formations. He also is a member of the Stradivari Quartet, through which he got access to the Stradivarius violin “King George” from 1710 (owned by a foundation) that he was playing in this concert. See also Wikipedia for more information on this artist. The pianist Benjamin Engeli (*1978) received most of his musical education In Basel. Today, his activities now happen mostly around Basel and Southern Germany. In this concert he was playing the excellent Steinway D concert grand that is part of the venue’s inventory.

Johannes Brahms: Violin Sonata No.2 in A major, op.100

The concert opened with the Sonata for Piano and Violin No.2 in A major, op.100 by Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897). This is a very melodic, mostly intimate piece (often referred to as “Lied-like”) that Brahms has written in 1886 at the lake of Thun in Switzerland. Brahms’ early works (such as his piano sonatas, or his first piano concerto in D minor) expressed his strong, lively feelings (in particular, his burning, youthful love to Clara Schumann). However, in this late sonata, a mild, mellow affection for a young German contralto dominates. He expected her soon to arrive in Thun.

The Performance

I. Allegro amabile

Right from the first bars of the piano introduction in the initial Allegro amabile, the listener feels embraced by the lyrical mood in this movement. Benjamin Engeli’s piano playing showed plasticity, was full of emotions, expressed in a warm, full tone. And the acoustics of the venue supported, even amplified the sound of the instrument. The tempo was excellent and did fit the annotation. It was not too slow, still Allegro, but it allowed the beautiful, melodic lines to flourish. The violin sets in with short interjections, gradually expanding into a harmonious dialog. At times it built up an emote exchange of thoughts, then again changed back into more of a cosy discourse with the piano.

Sebastian Bohren was very convincing in his playing, showed firmness in the intonation. To my delight, his vibrato was very tasteful and fairly moderate. The bright, lucid sound of his instrument (especially in the upper range) projected through the full sound of the Steinway. Also the coordination between the two artists was excellent. Two souls in perfect harmony, up to the chords of the jubilant ending.

II. Andante tranquillo — Vivace — Andante — Vivace di più

Brahms starts the second movement with an Andante tranquillo. It’s a wonderful melodic invention, maybe remotely reminding of Franz Schubert’s music, longing, somewhat melancholic. The one thing that irritated me slightly was a tendency for belly notes (< >) in the articulation of the violin. To me, this section felt a tad overblown. My preference would have been simpler, more modest playing. The movement then switches to Vivace, in the piano also with the annotation molto leggiero. To me, this part felt slightly too heavy. But this may be due to the nature of the modern concert grand, possibly amplified by the acoustics.

After an Andante segment / ritornello (quoting from the beginning), a Vivace di più follows. This definitely demonstrated the weaknesses of using a modern grand in this hall and with this genre. The pizzicati of the violin were often hardly audible. Partially closing the lid of the piano would not have helped a lot. The problem was not with the higher registers, but with the full (mixed) sound of these modern instruments. In this case, they acoustics made this worse. I don’t mean to say that the venue features bad acoustics. But its characteristics are somewhat detrimental for specific types of playing, or for specific genres of chamber music, maybe. On the other hand, I liked Sebastian Engeli’s agility, his subtly placed accents.

III. Allegretto grazioso (quasi Andante)

The final movement — Allegretto grazioso (quasi Andante) — gave Sebastian Bohren the opportunity to play out the qualities of the lower registers of his precious instrument. Of course he got eminent help by Brahms’ prudent piano score — a writing that sometimes reminded of his early sonatas.

Leos Janáček: Sonata for Violin and Piano

Leos Janáček (1854 – 1928) completed his Sonata for violin and piano in 1914.

The Performance

I. Con moto

The composition starts with an urging, emotional first movement, Con moto. The violin ist the first to present the melodic elements, above accompanying tremolo bursts in the piano. Later, the piano adopts the melodies / motifs from the violin. Benjamin Engeli was excellent at making the melody stand out in the middle voices: accented notes amidst an often very busy piano part.

II. Ballada

In the second movement, a Ballada, majestic melodies dominate. They often appear as duet between the violin and a voice in the piano, often with tremolo-like accompaniment. It’s an intimate movement, the two musicians played in perfect harmony, with warm, singing tones in the violin. Ultimately, the movement dies off into silence, in the highest notes on the E string. I Had lots of pleasure when I realized that Sebastian Bohren was very careful not to use an excess of vibrato.

III. Allegretto

The subsequent Allegretto is very impetuous, with wildly falling scales: here, I liked the excellent dynamic balance, not just between the two instruments, but also within the piano part. Janáček’s piano writing is very transparent: the pizzicati on the violin were easily heard also with accompaniment.

IV. Adagio

The sonata ends with an Adagio: repeatedly, the piano plays a softly strolling melody in octaves, on top of an accompaniment with interesting, open-ended harmonic progression. The violin is playing rapid, nervous interjections, with mute on the G and D strings. The annotation is espressivo and feroce, creating a very special, maybe somewhat menacing or fearful atmosphere. Then again, there is a section with wonderful cantilenas. After a short climax, the movement ends morendo, in the strange mood of its beginning. To me, this sonata featured the most convincing playing of the evening, both technically, as well as in the interpretation.

Richard Strauss: Violin Sonata in E♭ major, op.18

From a musical point-of-view, i.e., as a composition, the highlight of the evening (in my personal view) followed after the intermission, with the Sonata for Violin and Piano in E♭ major, op.18 by Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949). Strauss wrote this in 1887/88, i.e., right after Brahms finished his op.100. The composition is a fascinating piece, already carrying the melodic and harmonic features so typical of the composer’s later works. Sadly, it is Strauss’ last contribution to the genre. After this, he focused on orchestral music, on Lieder, and on music for the stage.

The Performance

Technically, this sonata is a different caliber than the two preceding compositions in the program. It is highly virtuosic in both parts (but particularly for the pianist). This may not be entirely obvious, but in this concert there were hints about the difficulties in Strauss’ sonata.

I. Allegro, ma non troppo

In the first movement, Allegro, ma non troppo, the piano part lacked the ultimate brilliance and clarity. The acoustics may have obscured some of the fast passages. But I also missed some rhythmic accuracy. Already the triplet in the initial motif was clearly unevenly played. This wasn’t intentional, as the subsequent responses in the violin sounded as written in the score. The violin part also suffered from occasional intonation issues. I wondered whether the more pronounced vibrato was associated with the technical challenges in this super-charged, highly emotional, stirring movement?

II. Andante cantabile

The contrasting second movement, Andante cantabile, is lyrical, enchanting, atmospheric, with dreamy, somewhat melancholic cantilenas. The piano accompanies with pedal-blurred arpeggios. The middle part is more expressive, emote, especially in the piano accompaniment. But then, the music returns to the melodic mood of the beginning, finally retracting into the softness of a ppp; I liked the excellent dynamic balance between violin and accompaniment.

III. Andante — Allegro

The final movement begins with the piano alone, in a short, retained, thoughtful Andante introduction. This leads to the energico eruption of the (again) highly virtuosic Allegro part. This music is burning from stirring emotionality, and very demanding in the rhythmic coordination. In general, the two artists mastered this very well, gave an enthralling, often sparkling interpretation. There were occasional intonation issues, a few, negligible, missed keys on the piano. But given the live concert situation and the enormous difficulties in the composition, this is more than understandable. It probably explains why one cannot hear this sonata more often (ignoring the top virtuosi in this world). Overall, the interpretation of this composition impressed me a lot. Strauss’ music is undeniably enthralling. In my opinion, it is a true gem in the duo literature!

Encore — Fritz Kreisler: Liebesleid

The two musicians certainly deserved the long applause — which led them to play an encore, “Liebesleid” by Fritz Kreisler (1875 – 1962), the No.2 from his “Alt-Wiener Tanzweisen”. This is a nice, atmospheric little piece — but as a composition nowhere near any the sonatas that we heard in the official program. The encore is a nice gesture. But in that case, I found it a pity, because it partially quenched the fresh impression from the highly emotional Strauss sonata. But I concede that it is difficult to find a matching encore to this demanding music.

Addendum 1

For the same concert, I have also written a (much shorter) review in German for This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I create the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.

Addendum 2

For two of the compositions of this evening, I have written short blog posts with a brief discussion of a few recordings in my collection (not including the above artists, though):

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