Békéscsaba, 14 October 1899 – Basel, 16 December 1985
It was the general custom in the first half of the last century for those preparing for an instrumental performer's career, to enrol to study - in order to acquire a deeper professional knowledge, though without necessarily wanting to compose - besides their instrument, composition as well at the Academy. Many of our pianists (among them Béla Böszörményi-Nagy, György Sándor and Tibor Wehner) attended for a shorter or longer period the Kodály class. Iván Engel conducted his studies in a somewhat irregular fashion. He gained his pianist's qualification in István Thomán's private music school. At the Music Academy he learned composition from Leo Weiner and in the 1923/24, third academic year from Kodály, who also gave him private tuition. We do not know whether he ever composed any sonatas or symphonies. But this small, bird-boned man was significant as a re-creator of the piano music of the two centuries between Bach and Bartók. Kodály drew attention to him abroad as early as in 1922: "Of the many pianists following in Dohnányi's footsteps, Lajos Kentner and Iván Engel have the most promising talent." (Musical Courier, New York) Sándor Jemnitz in his Thomán obituary mentions "…among the extraordinary achievements of his work as a teacher…" Bartók, Dohnányi, Ungár – and also Iván Engel. (Népszava, 24 September 1940)
In the twenties he taught for two years at the Cairo Music Academy, and then settled in the Berlin of the Weimar Republic, the capital of European musical culture. He might have had a great international career: he was recognised as a pianist, welcome in the great concert halls of the continent, an obsessive interpreter – as besides him only Louis Kentner – of the piano music of Bartók and Kodály. This was at an age when besides them – or rather, above them – only Bartók himself took these works to the podiums of the world – while the more significant foreign pianists were totally disinterested in them.
With Hitler's arrival, Engel left Berlin in 1933. He still had successes in Britain, the Netherlands and in Switzerland; his concerts at home were given enthusiastic reviews by Jemnitz, Péterfi, and Aladár Tóth, but he could not get a teaching post anywhere. Bartók, preparing to travel to Turkey, wrote to László Rásonyi, who was organising the trip, recommending, with some other Hungarian musicians, the unemployed Engel for a teaching post at the Ankara Music Academy then being established. There is no information regarding the fate of this recommendation. In the autumn of 1938, Engel was in London, hoping to get a teaching post in the music college in Glasgow and to settle there. Bartók sent a very warm recommendation, but without success. Thus he came home with his wife, Ilse Kühner, a Swiss-born painter and sculptor. He found himself on the periphery of musical life, teaching at the Fodor Music School, as long as that was possible. Yet, this was a man who had had from 1926 a permanent place in the piano subscription concerts and played solo for Dohnányi (Mozart) and Mengelberg (Beethoven).
From the autumn of 1946 he taught piano – largely as a compulsory subject – at the Music Academy. He appeared with Klemperer (Beethoven's Choral Fantasy, then Mozart's Piano Concerto in F major, K.459.). It is a dubious undertaking to try to recall concerts of 50 or more years ago, but perhaps his Beethoven was the most memorable: the heroic-lyric sounds of the E-flat major concerto, the faraway, ethereally pure sound of the Op. 111 Arietta. And he was so at home in the language of Bach and Mozart! He took part in the recording for radio of all Bartók's piano music, initiated by Ferenc Bónis, recalling the golden age of his career. In the late autumn of 1956 he escaped to Switzerland, the birthplace of his wife. From Basle he wrote very warm letters to Kodály and received post from the Kodálys and Aladár Tóth, who by then had retired from writing for publication. Did Iván Engel teach or give concerts in Switzerland over the next three decades? We do not know, there are no sources for us to tell. What is certain is that we lost an excellent musician in him, whom we did not appreciate at his true value while we had the chance.