November 06, 2014

Menahem Pressler: piano legend celebrates 90th birthday with the Ebène Quartet

The Beaux Arts Trio pianist found ideal chamber partners for his birthday gala last year, captured on CD/DVD.
In the pantheon of legendary live piano recordings, one could list Horowitz’s return to Moscow in 1986 (where he had not appeared since 1925), Michelangeli’s Chopin-Schumann-Debussy recital of 1957 at the Royal Festival Hall in London or Richter’s first appearance in New York in 1960 (six recitals played to a full house). Behind the iron curtain, Vladimir Sofronitsky’s all-Scriabin or all-Schumann programs hold a special place amongst connoisseurs. Also filled with a special emotional charge, Gerald Moore’s farewell concert in 1967, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Victoria de Los Angeles and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau by his side, was aptly sealed with a poignant rendition of his piano solo transcription of Schubert’s An die Musik. We are fortunate that these priceless performances have been saved for posterity.

On November 7th, 2013, musicians and audience alike were filled with a similar feeling of anticipation: legendary pianist Menahem Pressler was celebrating his 90th birthday at the Salle Pleyel with a select number of friends. All are from different backgrounds and generations but all share an acute sense of what “making music together” means: overcoming one’s individuality, blending personal qualities to serve a composer and give birth to a unified vision of a composition.

For Menahem Pressler, the art of chamber music has been at the core of his musical life ever since he founded the Beaux Arts Trio. For fifty-three years, he was the driving force of an ensemble which has set new standards of excellence for the genre.

When the trio decided to stop its activities in 2008, some expected Menahem Pressler to enjoy a well-deserved retirement. But for a musician who only once, forty years ago, reluctantly accepted a proposal to take a few days off, the idea of slowing down seemed preposterous. Not only is playing essential to Menahem Pressler, it is also a source of renewed energy.

Such energy never ceases to amaze those who play with him, as the Quatuor Ebène can well testify. For their first musical collaboration at Munich’s Herkulessaal, Menahem Pressler had travelled from Bloomington, Indiana, where he has been living and teaching for nearly six decades. On the day of his arrival, he scheduled a five-hour long evening rehearsal during which he did not once leave his keyboard, the four string players fuelling up on drinks and sandwiches to keep up with Pressler’s endurance.

It is with the same level of dedication that Menahem Pressler prepared his first ever performance of Schubert’s Winterreise at the age of 88. For months, the score travelled with him, laying on his piano stand wherever he practised. Only after this thorough preparation did he meet Christoph Prégardien to premiere the song cycle at the Verbier Festival.

The program selected for this 90th Birthday celebration at Salle Pleyel included two pillars of the chamber music repertoire: Dvorák’s quintet Op. 81 and Schubert’s Trout quintet. Both scores in A Major have been longtime companions of Menahem Pressler. When performing with artists who are a half-century younger, he is also passing on a unique legacy to a new generation of musicians.
It is as a tribute to the recipient of the Debussy Prize, and to the great master he has become, that the Quatuor Ebène played the slow movement of Debussy’s string quartet as a surprise encore. A rendition whose poignancy can be read on the face of Menahem Pressler.

My playing must have changed. I am filled with gratitude. Age has the advantage that it is no longer the success that you are after: it is the profound experience… You would like to know why you are on stage. I now feel I can connect people to that which means so much to me. The real enjoyment comes when you are capable of creating something that, for your soul, for your mind, for your friends, and for the audience, is meaningful.

Menahem Pressler

History has witnessed numerous wunderkinder. We should be equally stunned when a musician reveals himself as a prodigy in old age: his creative and physical powers allowing him to distill the quintessence of an art which draws on over seven decades of experience. Menahem Pressler definitely belongs to this rare category of “venerable prodigies”. -Pierre-Martin Juban

Menahem Pressler: 90th birthday celebration live in Paris is available now on CD/DVD.