The most treasured pianist alive

I have been wanting to write for a while about why we feel the way we do towards Menahem Pressler. He’s 90 this month and has two solo releases out, so that seems a good moment to explore our collective responses to him.

Menahem was, for 55 years, pianist of the  Beaux Arts Trio, the most prolific chamber ensemble on record. He was – is – an inspirational teacher at Bloomington, Indiana, and is now in hot demand at the world’s top conservatories and orchestra.

Others may share an equal eminence, but Menahem is unmatched in the affection he arouses wherever he goes.

How does he do that? I have one or two thoughts…. Read Standpoint magazine here.

menahem queen

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    • Fabulous interview. He’s very complimentary about £ang £ang which made the following comment even more pertinent:

      – Aber er hat nicht das, was wirklich tief in ein Werk führt –

      …following up by saying how much he’ll benefit by studying with Barenboim.

    • Here is a translation of Andreas Austilat and Anna Kemper’s interview with Menahem Pressler that appeared in „Der Tagesspiegel“ of 2 November 2008. Title: Menahem Pressler: “Ich liebe Knackwürstchen“.

      Mr Pressler, when you play the piano, you have very expressive facial gestures: you pull certain faces.

      I always purse my lips in such an odd way, I sometimes look like a Goldfish.

      Are you aware of it?

      No, I am lost in concentration. Though my facial expressions have certainly put me in some difficult situations. On one occasion, the woman sitting next to me, who was supposed to be turning pages, kept turning at the wrong time. I would turn the page back, and then, when the time did come to turn, she didn’t move. I was in a real sweat.

      Couldn’t she read music?

      No. She just turned when I nodded. Unfortunately I nod a lot when I am playing.

      Was that your worst moment on stage?

      Oh no. On one occasion, my page-turner was a very large woman, who was wearing what was not so much a dress as a kind of tent. Whenever she leant over to turn, copious amounts of fabric fell over the keys. I didn’t know where my hand was or where we were up to in the music.

      Daniel Barenboim once said that what he learnt before he was 25 has stayed with him, while he wouldn’t be able to play from memory two bars of a piano concerto that he first studied at 40.

      I am surprised that Barenboim said that. He has the best memory of us all. Phenomenal, the scores he has in his head. But he is right: This morning I played the “Hommage a Schumann”, a piece that György Kurtag wrote for me and the Beaux Arts Trio. In the past I would have sailed through it, but this time it was difficult.

      Even though you had a concert just last night, you were practising once again this morning?

      You can’t get by without practice. I got to bed at half past one this morning. I began practising at 8 o’clock. Only for an hour and a half, unfortunately.

      It’s said that Daniel Barenboim doesn’t like to practise.

      I know. And sometimes it sounds like it. He is so brilliant. I revere him. I played with him when he was just 14. He is a genius. He can do more than any of us, as conductor as well as pianist. But when you don’t practise, then you can’t play anymore. It’s the same as if your car has no oil.

      For 53 years you headed the best piano trio in the world. Did you ever regret having decided against a solo career?

      Never. I had the choice. In 1955, when the Beaux Arts Trio was founded, I had already been a soloist for 10 years. But I had this feeling: when we play together, something special happens. The chemistry is right, this feeling of being inspired.

      But you must have had to put your own ego to one side

      If you don’t blend in with an ensemble, you cannot get deeply into the spirit of a masterpiece. You must always keep your ego in check. It is not the work that, like a dress, makes you look better; but rather you, as the servant of the music, who brings the work to life.

      You are a supporter of a generation of pianists who have had little say over how they are presented. A young pianist like Lang Lang is made to play on a transparent piano in a waterfall.

      It is not his fault that someone puts him in a waterfall! Besides, he was very well paid for it. And he has the luck that a Barenboim wants to teach him. Lang Lang is a lovely young man. I know him very well. He has wonderful hands. But he does not have that capacity to really get to the heart of a work. That is what Barenboim can show him.

      Can one actually learn that?

      One has to have it, and one has to learn to activate it. There are people who stutter, but have something important to say. And there are people who speak marvellously, but all that comes out is cocktail chat.

      The second level is missing.

      The level of greatness. Schnabel did not play technically perfectly, nor do Alfred Brendel or Radu Lupu. Valdimir Horowitz: he was technically phenomenal, but perfect? No. It is not technical perfection that makes them so marvellous, it is their inspiration.

      You are famous as Menahem Pressler. But your actual name is Max.

      Yes, Max was what they called me as a child.

      You were born in Magdeburg, and you stayed there with your parents and siblings until your 15th year

      My parents had a clothing store there, mostly for menswear. It was quite near the old market, in Buttergasse, but it doesn’t exist anymore. It wasn’t a particularly big shop. My parents had maybe three or four employees.

      Do you remember the 9th of November 1938?

      Yes. On this day, my parents’ shop was destroyed. The windows were smashed in, the goods ripped out. There had already been signs hung on the door: “Don’t buy from Jews”. We sat at home and knew fear: a feeling that I have never experienced since.

      You were a schoolboy at the time.

      Not any longer. I was supposed to be a student at the high school, but had not been allowed to attend.

      Can you still remember how you were discriminated against at school?

      I only know that we thought: everything will blow over, it will pass. I prefer to remember good things: my piano teacher, who was the organist at the church and kept teaching me, although this was not allowed. Or the SA man who came to the aid of my brother when he fell off his bike and broke his foot

      You, your parents and siblings escaped via Italy to Palestine. Did you take your musical scores with you?

      I hardly had any scores. But I took my own compositions with me. While in Trieste, waiting for the ship to Palestine, I even had lessons. And on the ship I played at the Captain’s Dinner.

      Was playing the piano itself an escape for you?

      Without doubt. The piano saved my spirit and gave my life a purpose. It let me forget so much. My siblings often say: “Don’t you remember anything about what happened?” What’s more, they are younger than me.

      A large number of your family were put to death in the Holocaust.

      My grandparents, my uncle…My father’s brother was a wonderful tenor. When his wife was taken away, he went to this camp, or whatever it was, and said: take me, let my wife go. But they took him too. Their child, my cousin, survived. After the war he came to Palestine.

      In the mid-50s you gave your first concert in Germany. Did you hesitate to return to the country that had inflicted such terrible things on your family?

      Actually, no. At that time, in the 50s, many other Jewish artists were not prepared to travel to Germany. However, I decided to donate the money that I earned in Germany to Israel. It was my wife’s idea. I continue to donate money to Israel today.

      When did you discard your German name?

      At 17, when I went to the Debussy Competition in San Francisco. In those days a lot of immigrants to Israel changed their names. It is only my wife who sometimes still calls me Max.

      You won the Competition. Your international career began. How did you get from Tel Aviv to San Francisco – that must have been an incredible distance in 1940?

      From Tel Aviv to Cairo, then by plane from Cairo to Athens and on and on, with several stopovers, to New York. And then three days on the train from New York to San Francisco

      You are still constantly on the move: yesterday you played in Toulouse, today you are giving interviews in Hamburg, tomorrow morning you fly to the USA.

      On my arrival there I have a concert in my home town, Bloomington, Indiana. Two days later I will be playing in Los Angeles. Three days after that in Vancouver, and then in New York.

      You don’t suffer from Jetlag, and you sit at the piano without glasses. How can you be so fit?

      My doctor says: the Dear Lord has forgotten me. My fitness program? Well, I walk from gate 15 to gate 20, or from terminal E to terminal B. When time is short, I am certainly puffing. I once gave two concerts in one day, first in Hong Kong, then in Pittsburgh. Due to the time change I could set off in the evening after the first concert and arrive on time for the next one on the same day. I play, and play – that keeps me fit.

      Mick Jagger weighs three kilograms less after a concert than before it. You spend more time sitting that Jagger, but do you also lose condition during a performance?

      Of course, it is very demanding. And although I am sitting, I am physically active. The difference between me and Jagger is this: I am above all else, emotionally challenged.

      Jagger isn’t?

      He is also musically challenged, but I mean the inspiration that one needs when one penetrates deep into a masterpiece. The songs that Jagger sings are no masterpieces. They are nice, many are terrific, and in any case very popular. But when you play Schumann or read Goethe, when you immerse yourself in things that can be counted amongst the most beautiful that the human spirit has conceived – then that draws a lot out of you. That goes very deep.

      Anne-Sophie Mutter says that when she plays Beethoven, she thinks of his fate and how he slowly became deaf. You have also recorded Beethoven.

      He must have suffered terribly with these quacks who messed about with his ears. But his music has nothing to do with that. Beethoven was not deaf in spirit. When playing him, I only think of what he has to say. He expresses something so powerful that he reaches to the highest level that the human spirit can comprehend. When I am giving a concert, and am in good form, then I see and feel things that I have never seen or felt before.

      It sounds like a high.

      That can be a high. But – and this is the difference from an amateur – the professional musician always has a red light in his head that warns him: you mustn’t overdo it!

      After you success in San Francisco, you studied in California. Did you meet other German immigrants there?

      Naturally. In Hollywood I often visited Franz Waxman…

      The composer for Alfred Hitchcock’s films…

      ..and every week I had an hour with Bruno Walter, one of the greatest conductors of all time. I once met Thomas Mann at a concert, Mahler’s 8th symphony. By the way, I also met Mahler’s widow, Alma Mahler-Werfel, in California…

      …who had liaisons with several famous men: Gustav Mahler, Oskar Kokoschka, Walter Gropius, Franz Werfel. Was she still turning all the men’s heads then?

      Only the famous ones! Seriously, she was already an elderly woman. Franz Waxman arranged for me to play for her. It was dreadfully hot in her house, so I asked her if I could take my jacket off. She replied: “You can take off everything, if you want to.” But that was no doubt just a joke.

      You spent your childhood in Germany, your youth in Israel, and since 1955 you have lived in the USA. Which country do you see as home?

      In fact all three. 50 years in the USA is a long time. But you can’t forget where you were born. I love Knackwurst and black bread. I have always spoken to my children in German. And what Israel has done for me is unforgettable. That was a salvation in every respect. The existence of Israel gives me strength. I know that I can never be cast out again.

      Because you know that Israel will always accept you?

      I will explain it to you like this: I was in Italy once, and someone stole my wallet, in the train. Fantastic, this man. He must have had magic hands. He could have played Debussy better than me! Ever since then, I have always had to touch my back pocket and assure myself that my wallet is still there. And I am relieved when I feel it. Now carry that over to my life, and you will know what Israel means to me.

      You made 62 recordings with the Beaux Arts Trio. The violinist and cellist have changed, but at the piano it has always been you. Don’t you regret that the trio had to be dissolved this year?

      Yes and no. 53 years is a long time, and what is marvelous is that we stopped when we were at the top of our form. Our violinist, Daniel Hope, wants to concentrate on his solo career. I don’t like the idea of inducting yet another new violinist.

      Mr Pressler, you will be 85 in December. How does making music change with age?

      With age you acquire the thing that you really need. My wife is also not that same as she was when I married her. She was young, so beautiful, with red hair. But with age the love is deeper, the friendship grows and a deep understanding, something that is quite wonderful. And it is the same with music.

  • To sort of quote John F. Kennedy,it is to understand what has separated Pressler from most other musicians trough his musical journey:

    It is not what music can do for you.

    It is what YOU can do for music.

    Simply stated,Pressler did for music what few have ever accomplished,a totally devoted musician, devoid of a huge musical ego,but sharing his love for it,with all blessed enough to have heard him or participated in some moments of his life.

    We need more Presslers and less egos to bring music back to its real roots.

    Let us just hope and wish he graces us with another 90 years of artistry and playing of such beauty and unrivalled “doing it for the music”.

  • Egos are usually in inverse proportion to ability and accomplishment.

    (I did actually attend some of his masterclasses, one of the more memorable was on the Berg Piano Sonata.)

  • I heard Menahem Pressler last night in Beethoven’s Fourth. It would be cloying and facile to say it was chamber-like in its intimacy but I’ve never heard it so simple or transparent. Pressler glided seamlessly in and out of his entries, discretely conducting the interludes before reintroducing the piano as naturally as if it belonged to the rank and file of the orchestra. A respectable Heldenleben after the break completed a delightful evening. Tonight, I’m off to Ivan Fischer and his BFO in Mahler 9. Good week.

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