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Menahem Pressler

menahem-presslerSo there’s still hope for my future career as a soloist. Menahem Pressler made his Symphony Center debut yesterday at the age of 92. It is true that he had been a legendary chamber musician for about 60 years, since founding the Beaux Arts Trio, but I still have over 30 years to correct that deficiency. If he can make his concerto debut with the Berlin Philharmonic just ten years short of his own centenary, then surely anything is possible.

Pressler has always exuded a sense of joy in his playing, whether through the impish wit he brought to Haydn or the lyrical rapture he conveyed in Dvorak. The very act of dedicating your life to the collaborative art of chamber music seems to indicate a certain humility, a willingness to subsume ego to the cause of music-making, although it might be that he just liked being among friends. That is, after all, the essence of chamber music – affectionate conviviality, intimate conversation, an act of communion. Still, it is quite touching to see the almost child-like delight with which he is enjoying this new phase in his life now that the Beaux Arts Trio is no more, a delight that his audiences seem willing to share.

As you would expect, he is quite frail, and had to be assisted to the piano by a solicitous page turner, but that made it even more moving when he started playing Mozart’s Rondo in A-minor with the same glowing cantabile tone that he had in his prime. His playing may not have been immaculate, but I don’t think he made an ugly sound the entire afternoon. His ears are as acute as ever, ensuring that every texture was beautifully balanced, the inner voices gently emphasized, the accompaniments quietly supportive. His fingers are not as fleet as before, but his touch has not deserted him.

This was especially true in the Kurtág that started the second half, the Impromptu al ongarese, which was dedicated to Pressler, a study in subtle sonorities, grave and haunting. He then played more challenging Debussy’s Estampes with a remarkable lucidity. The opening Pagodes was perhaps conveyed in more muted colors than usual, but that only gave the music a dream-like quality that seemed perfectly apt to this naïve vision of the orient. Even the lively Jardins sous la Pluie was played with some grace and agility, although his fingers couldn’t quite keep up with his intentions in the final peroration.

He ended with some Chopin, three mazurkas followed by the third Ballade. If the mazurkas brought out the most confident and rhythmically alert playing of the concert, it was fascinating to see how he tamed the more strenuous passages in the Ballade. He can’t play with the effortless speed and abandon of younger virtuosi, but he nevertheless showed great skill and cunning in concealing any technical limitations behind a curtain of warm phrasing and tonal beauty.

I confess that my mind drifted during the long contemplative passages in the Schubert G-major sonata, D894, that filled the first half. This is, in many ways, a work well suited to Pressler’s temperament, but Schubert occasionally jolts us from our meditation with passionate outbursts of anguish or defiance that Pressler couldn’t quite deliver. This is one of Schubert’s most visionary works, but it requires intense concentration by the pianist to hold its long phrases in absolute focus. Still, after a rather plodding scherzo, he played the tricky finale with quiet affection and charm.

I last heard Menahem Pressler about thirty years ago when the Beaux Arts Trio played in a cavernous exposition hall in Grenoble. It was the antithesis of the intimate salon that their repertoire was written for, a sign of their superstar status. Their success was surely due to Pressler, who brought zest to the music without ever overpowering his partners. It is good to see that his love of life and music is undiminished after such a long career. Now back to the piano. I have some catching up to do.

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