Brigitte Engerer, a French pianist who trained in Moscow and became known for her probing interpretations of French and Russian repertoire, died Saturday in Paris. She was 59 years old and had been battling cancer for several years, her agent said in a statement.
French President Francois Hollande said in a statement he was "saddened" by the news of her death and said Engerer's "talent...honored France.” Engerer always "supported young musicians... while pursuing a remarkable international career," he said.
In French press accounts, associates remembered Engerer as a gregarious, warm personality who balanced her solo work with chamber music as well as teaching at the Paris Conservatoire.
Born October 27, 1952 in Tunis, Engerer began playing the piano at age four and went to study at the Paris Conservatory at the age of 11. At 17 she had left Paris to study in the USSR at the invitation of the Moscow Conservatory. This gave her a deep association with the works of Russian composers, including Tchaikovsky's The Seasons and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.
Prizes at the Tchaikovsky, Queen Elisabeth and Long-Thibaud Competitions followed, and while she had a reasonably successful career in France in the 1970s, it was conductor Herbert von Karajan’s invitation to play with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1980 that signaled her breakthrough. It was a critical success and she returned two years later for the orchestra’s centenary celebrations.
Invitations to perform as a soloist with some of the world's top orchestras followed across the US and Europe, Japan and the UK. She made her solo debut at Carnegie Hall in 1983, and a week later performed the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto with the New York Philharmonic.
"It was not just huge sound and Rolls-Roycean octave technique that impressed," wrote Bernard Holland in his New York Times review of the latter performance. "Miss Engerer's feats of dexterity were achieved at no sacrifice of richness and color; and musically, she entered into the drama of the piece with a perfectly pitched sense of grace and tension." Holland added that "player and material seemingly created for each other."
Beginning in the late 1980s, Engerer made a series of well-received recordings for Harmonia Mundi, including a two-CD traversal of Chopin’s Nocturnes in 1993 (reissued in 2010). Among her most popular recordings was a duo-piano recording with Boris Berezovsky of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances and Liebeslieder Waltzes, for piano four hands, on the Mirare label.
The pianist gave her last concert on June 12th at the Theatre des Champs-Elysées, where she played the Schumann concerto with the Chamber Orchestra of Paris, 50 years after his first concert in that very room.
Engerer received a number of honors, including the French Legion of Honor, and in 2011 was given a lifetime achievement award by the French music industry.
Engerer is survived by her husband, the writer Yann Queffélec, and their daughter, Leonora.