Soon after his ninetieth birthday, Menahem Pressler was preparing to fly to Germany to perform with Semyon Bychkov and the Berlin Philharmonic. Then the snow arrived — massive, crippling amounts of it. There was no way to get from his home perch in Bloomington to the Chicago airport. Or so he was told. But as he has proven throughout his life, this indomitable pianist is himself a force of nature.

Undaunted, he rented a four-wheel drive vehicle and enlisted a student to chauffeur. Off they went, skirting dead ends and unpassable roads until, after seven hours, they were finally stopped by Homeland Security and told to turn back. Instead, they took a side road without knowing where it would lead, and miraculously reached the airport; as it turned out, his plane had been delayed for two hours because the de-icing machine had broken down. Then, when he touched down in Munich, the connecting flight to Berlin had already left. 

He arrived at his final destination without sleep, and went immediately into rehearsals. That evening, he performed a stellar Mozart Concerto, then encored with a Chopin Nocturne. When he finished, the audience was on its feet. “The next day, Simon Rattle came to hear me play the second concert,” he beams. “He gave me a hug and confessed, ‘I envy my friend, Semyon.’ I replied, ‘You can have me too!’ And at that point he offered me a residency with the orchestra. It was like a dream.”

The story does have the trappings of a fantasy, but it is truly vintage Pressler. For years, younger members of the Beaux Arts Trio, which he founded in 1955 and continued to lead through numerous personnel shifts, complained that they didn’t have the energy to keep up with him. Clearly, not much has changed. “A journalist asked me, ‘How does a pianist of your significant age feel?’” he relates. “I told him that when I play, I don’t feel older than fifty. When I teach, I don’t feel older than forty. But when I walk up the stairs, I feel my age.”

His gait is indeed slower, but his performing career is rushing ahead at full steam. Pressler has long been the chamber musician nonpareil: golden-toned, with an unfailing sense of phrasing, an encyclopedic knowledge of the music and the musicians who created it, and a lifelong dedication to the art of collaboration. Since he has let go of the famous trio he had nurtured for over fifty years, though, something new has been brewing: major orchestras have begun beating down his door. 

Just around the time of his birthday in December, he performed with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam (“three concerts in their subscription series, but I also performed with the Fancy Fiddlers, young string players who are students of the most famous instrumentalists in Holland.”); and then it was on to St. Petersburg at the invitation of Valery Gergiev, to play with the Mariinsky Orchestra. (Here, things were more challenging: a promised translator did not meet them at the airport, and at the rehearsal things started off badly — the orchestra was too loud. He told them so, Gergiev translated his comments, and in the end it turned out fine.) It’s exciting, but also very new: “At ninety, I’m having a solo career for the first time in my life!” he says gleefully. 

Nevertheless, the chamber experience remains at the core of his musical being. So it was no surprise that cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, organized two concerts celebrating his new nonagenarian status. Violinist Daniel Hope and the Emerson String Quartet joined in. “When the Emerson Quartet started out,” Pressler reports, “they considered me a critic, sports coach and mentor.” From their comments—a mixture of admiration and trepidation over his straight-shooting comments during rehearsals—it was obvious that they still do.

Through the years. The Beaux Arts Trio, which performed from 1955–2008, went through a half dozen personnel changes at viola and violin, all of which were grounded by pianist Menahem Pressler. The founding trio (left): Daniel Guilet, violin; Pressler; Bernard Greenhouse, cello. The final lineup (right): Antonio Meneses, cello; Pressler; Daniel Hope, violin. 

 

The first birthday concert was on his home turf of Indiana University, where he has been teaching piano for fifty-eight years — and still handles a full-time teaching load as Distinguished Professor. “It’s difficult to play for your colleagues and students,” he admits, though, as expected, the response was momentous. “The president of the university said he wanted to give a little speech; I hardly listened, but it turned out he was giving me the school’s University Medal.” Created in 1982 to honor service to the university and achievement in arts, letters, science and law, the medal is made of 18-karat gold. “He put it around my neck, and I took it off to play because I already had enough weight on my shoulders,” remembers Pressler. “I gave it to the custodian and promptly forgot about it. Then I found out it was valued at $20,000.” An even greater honor was in store, however: “They gave me my own parking space!” he exclaims. In academia, that’s the highest rung on the ladder.

In New York, the Chamber Music Society gave him their first-ever award for extraordinary service to chamber music, in recognition of “his prize-winning discography, his dedicated teaching, and his performances worldwide.” At a dinner following his concert, the Consulate General of Israel offered a special award of its own. After his family had fled Nazi Germany in 1939, the pianist spent his teenage years in Tel Aviv, where his father opened a men’s clothing store; his sister still lives there, and his wife, Sara was born and bred in that country. “I left Israel,” Pressler proclaimed, “but Israel never left me.”

Indeed, before accepting any performing or teaching commitments in Germany, he sought Sara’s permission. She granted it on one condition: that any money he earned there had to be donated to the State of Israel. “I’ve fulfilled that promise all of my life,” he said.

The impetus for leaving his home on Hanevi’im Street for an unknown future in the United States was a 1946 piano competition in San Francisco devoted to the works of Claude Debussy. Darius Milhaud and Roger Sessions were judges. “I didn’t enter to win,” he recounts. “I wanted to go — and my teacher encouraged me — to find out if I was good enough to become a professional musician. I needed to know. At about that time, an elderly French pianist working in Israel named Paul Loyonnet was engaged to play Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto with the Israel Philharmonic, and I was made his practice accompanist.

“After I had rehearsed with him he said, ‘You know, you are pretty good. What are your plans?’ And I told him about the Debussy Competition. ‘What do you play?’ he asked. ‘The First Arabesque, and ‘Claire de lune,”’ I responded. He started to laugh. ‘Bring four Preludes tomorrow,’ he told me. I did and he showed me how to study and play this music.” Pressler won the competition, which led to his Carnegie Hall debut, playing the Schumann Piano Concerto with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. 

His career was launched. Devoting it to chamber music was, he explains, an accident. “I was recording for MGM,” he remembers, “and wanted to do Mozart trios. I found violinist Daniel Guilet and cellist Bernard Greenhouse for one recording. Guilet was to arrange for us to do seven concerts before we made the recording. Instead, we got seventy — in small, small towns. I thought playing chamber music was just fun, and we began to play together fulltime. Soon it became obvious, though, that the biggest part was not simply fun, but working very hard, and knowing how to work hard, which is very different in a chamber setting. It’s not just playing the notes, or even being sensitive and playing together; you have to learn how to build a group, which is like building a marriage. 

“Guilet used to say that he would rather take someone for his quartet who plays a little less well than another, provided that person is devoted to what chamber music really is. Much of the time you underline someone else’s playing — and give them the greatest possibility to speak at their very best. 

“There are stages to a group’s development. The first stage is one in which you all like each other and everything sounds wonderful. It’s just like a honeymoon — you approve of everything the other person does, and you get approval in return. Then comes daily life. Some of the things that attracted you to the other’s playing start to seem like mannerisms. Say the other person rushes a bit. You like it in the beginning, because somehow it seemed to have momentum. Then, you begin to feel, ‘That’s too much, it breaks the form.’ All of a sudden the balance seems wrong.

 

‘It’s not just playing the notes, or even being sensitive and playing together; you have to learn how to build a group, which is like building a marriage.’

 

“Now, all of that [may be true], or it might be imagined. But this makes no difference. It must be addressed, while keeping respect for each other.”

In the end, he says, it is all worth it. “I hear young pianists play from one beautiful place in a piece to the next beautiful place — but the conception of the whole work is missing. The chamber experience shows you how to build a bridge between those places.”

Perhaps that is why the New York Times described his playing as encompassing “a different kind of technique. In it, variations of tone and color became precise metaphors for the breathing patterns of a given phrase, inner dissonances and their resolutions sounded clearly but with no intrusion; feeling was transferred directly into sound.”

Of course, beauty occupies an important place on his list of musical priorities. “The pianist who has a beautiful sound is like a good-looking person. You immediately feel attracted. For many works it’s essential — a reason for being. Someone playing Chopin with an ugly sound will have a very hard time making the form stand out, because in the end what really counts is the beauty that the composer put into the music. Even Beethoven, whose message is so strong it can bear a hard edge, put indications in his music such as ‘tender.’”

Yet, in Pressler’s view, chamber music cultivates broader and deeper aspects of music-making. In a chamber music performance, he says, there is “no soloist playing fast octaves and loud chords. You just have the music. The greatest moments are when you forget the player and you hear the work in its glory. The composers are our gods — we are preaching their bibles. For a performer every hall becomes a temple.”

It explains why he still loves to practice — it’s a way of communing with music’s deities. And in the Book of Menahem, each one has a different lesson to impart: Chopin? “The piano opens up its arms for Chopin — he makes it sing. But when you play Mozart, it is your insides that open up.” Mozart? “Of course we have Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann. But without Mozart we couldn’t fly. Playing him, you feel you are closer to heaven — there is a transparency and a delicacy and an immediacy in his music.”

Beethoven? “In Beethoven we have tremendous philosophical insights, especially in his last works. Don’t forget that this man was deaf. He writes the innermost music. His powers of persuasion and expression are unique.” Schubert? “No one else could dance or change harmonies like that. Nobody’s tears were as moving as Schubert’s.” Debussy? “Debussy’s colors are like flowers that don’t have the usual hues. It’s as if he brought together seeds from all over to produce a garden we’ve never experienced before.”

What will he do next? No doubt there will be more recordings (he released two solo-piano albums — one of Beethoven, Chopin and Schubert (BIS) and Tales from Vienna, chosen by Radio France as record of the year, comprising works by Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert (La Dolce Volta), and more students to be mentored. 

And then there are all those new orchestral dates. “If you only knock long enough and loud enough at the gate, you are sure to wake up somebody,” said Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It seems that after all these years, Menahem Pressler has managed to stir new segments of the music world from their slumbers.

 

This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & CultureSteinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.

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