Pianist Engerer has lived the life of a Russian novel

March 06, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Pianist Brigitte Engerer could have been a heroine in a Russian novel, perhaps one by Tolstoy: She knows what it is to sacrifice for love.

She left France as a child of 17 for a year's study in Moscow. She returned 10 years later as a young woman, after a long, bittersweet love affair with her famous and self-destructive Russian teacher, to a country that had forgotten her.

"It was difficult," Engerer says, pausing to kiss the fingers of her traveling companion, her 7-year-old daughter, Leonore, who is busying herself with a video game.

"I lost the man I loved, I lost a country that I had learned to love and I lost the language I had been speaking."

But the pianist, who will play Saint-Saens' G Minor Concerto this weekend with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, returned to France as a fascinating hybrid. She combines the clarity and rationality that characterizes the French school with the seething power and something of the craziness of Russian playing at its best.

She should. Stanislas Neuhaus, her teacher and lover until the time of his death in 1980, was one of the most tragic figures in Russian music. Although he was a great pianist, he always felt himself to be in the shadow of his even more famous father, Heinrich -- the teacher of Vladimir Horowitz, Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter -- and his adoptive father, the great poet-novelist Boris Pasternak. It was only in 1980 when the younger Neuhaus died from alcoholism at the age of 53 that Engerer returned to France.

"He always tried to make other people happy, but he could never make himself happy," Engerer says.

She began to study with him at the age of 17, but -- although she was in love with him from the start -- didn't become romantically involved with him until almost five years later, when she had won a prize in the 1974 Tchaikovsky Competition.

"It looked as if I would be leaving Russia, and we could no longer play at being indifferent to each other," she says. She stayed another six years -- difficult years, she says, that became even more painful after Neuhaus' death. The breakup of her marriage three years ago to the Goncourt Prize-winning novelist Yann Quefflec -- her daughter's father -- "was nothing compared to what I went through after Stanislas died," she says.

But, despite her grief, she still had to make a living in the now

strange ways of the capitalistic West.

"After 10 years, I felt as ignorant as a Russian immigrant," she says. In Russia, all concerts were arranged by the state-run concert agency. In the West, musicians had to make it on their own, and she had to learn how to be aggressive. She sent a tape to Herbert von Karajan. Incredibly, he asked her to audition.

"I played some Mozart, some Schumann, some Chopin and some Rachmaninov," she says. "He said, 'I love your left hand.' The next thing I knew I was in the office of his assistant being booked to play with the Berlin Philharmonic. I thought 'This is not real life; this is a Hollywood movie.' "

Three years later, in 1984, she made a dream debut in New York, playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto for appreciative audiences and enthusiastic critics who couldn't understand how so astonishingly powerful and expressive a pianist could have sneaked up on them unawares. While this week marks her BSO debut, she has been playing with prominent American orchestras for several years.

"No, I don't think I will ever become famous," she says. "I am no longer -- how do you say it? -- fresh meat. Sometimes, I don't know even what to make of myself. I'm French, but I feel Russian. I'm a Roman Catholic, but I feel Jewish. Then sometimes I feel like I'm a dinosaur because there are so few of us left who love music. But, then, I think that when we few dinosaurs find each other, we make each other very happy."

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