If a chamber-music hall of fame were to exist, Menahem Pressler would assuredly be a charter member. The much-revered pianist, now 92, was the heart and soul of the Beaux Arts Trio — arguably the most famed piano trio in modern history. He was the only member to remain with the group from its first concert in 1955 at what is now known at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Mass., through its dissolution in 2008 — an extraordinary 53-year history.
When the end finally came, most people probably expected Pressler, who was then 84, to return to his teaching at Indiana University, where he has been on the piano faculty since the 1950s, and perhaps perform a bit here and there. Even the pianist acknowledges that he was not expecting what actually followed — a rekindled solo career that has taken him to some of the world’s most elite concert halls and led to collaborations with such distinguished ensembles as the Orchestre de Paris and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. “The transition was a surprise. I didn’t know that I would do that. I didn’t aim for it,” Pressler said from Berlin, where on Oct. 18, he received an ECHO Klassik Award for lifetime achievement.
Igniting this exciting coda to his chamber-music career — which on Jan. 24 will mark Pressler’s debut on the Symphony Center Presents Piano Series — was a well-reviewed solo recital in Paris in March 2011 that was recorded live and released on CD and DVD. That set off a string of prominent engagements that included his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic in January 2014 and a return later that year to the orchestra for a New Year’s Eve concert with music director Simon Rattle that was heard by 1.3 million people via a live broadcast. That program, which featured Pressler in Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major, K. 488, was also released on CD and DVD. “When you listen to that recording and see it like I did, I must admit that I didn’t know I could play that well,” the pianist said.
It is the continuation of what had already been by any definition an amazing life story, one that could easily have been snuffed out almost before it began with the rise of the Nazis in Pressler’s native Germany. In the aftermath of Kristallnacht, he managed to flee the country with his immediate family in May 1939, going first to Italy and then to Palestine and ultimately the United States; his grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins died in concentration camps. Through it all, he managed to continue his musical studies.
His career took off in 1946, when he won first prize at the Debussy International Piano Competition in San Francisco, a victory that led to his Carnegie Hall debut with conductor Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Although he continued to pursue a solo career for nearly a decade, he went on to establish his musical legacy by switching gears and becoming the Beaux Arts Trio’s anchor — a smiling, ever-dependable, elfin presence hunched over the keyboard behind his two string colleagues. It would be hard to over-praise this now-legendary group, which with its refined, incisive style did probably more than any other ensemble to promulgate the piano-trio literature. To honor that legacy, Decca Classics in July released a 60-CD box set marking the 60th anniversary of the trio’s founding.
“We really did try to penetrate the great depth and feelings of that music,” he said. “That is, of course, is the great thing — that this music, which is so beautiful, would stay alive and be played with a dedication and love that I and everyone can now hear, especially with the 60 records just coming out. I hear very often [today] more a kind of virtuosity in playing, and it is not that it reaches deep into the heart of the piece but it reaches into the outside of the piece. The fingers are wonderful and it’s clean and brilliant, but that is not what makes these works live for such a long time and, in a sense, forever. Because as long as we have a world that values the great things that this world has — the great painters, the great architects, the great dancers, the great composers, the great poets — there will be something that will enchant the hearts of the listeners and give them the feeling that there is great beauty to dwell in, that there is something to live with and to live for.”
The pianist quickly admits that he misses his time with the trio. “To play trios with the Beaux Arts was, for me, always something very special,” he said. “A pianist in a trio is always primus inter pares [first among equals], and it was always something very wonderful and great. Look what I had. I had a Greenhouse [founding cellist Bernard Greenhouse]. I had a Guilet [founding violinist Daniel Guilet]. I had [violinist] Isidore Cohen. And then, in the end, I had [violinist] Daniel Hope and [cellist] Antonio Meneses — the young ones, who were beautiful players.”
So far, at least, Pressler does not believe any ensemble has emerged as a worthy successor to the Beaux Arts, because too many of today’s musicians emphasize what he calls the brilliance of playing over the depths of feeling. “It is sad for me,” he said, “and I am teaching with great passion, hoping that I will be father or grandfather of a new trio that will take the place of the Beaux Arts.”
As he has for more than a half-century, the unstoppable artist continues to teach piano at Indiana University’s School of Music. He makes a point of not setting exalted goals for his students but tries to help them reach what he calls their “maximum,” whatever that might be. “Their maximum may not be good enough for a great position or a great trio or a great ensemble,” he said, “but it may good enough for being wherever. The town does not have to be big to be a good teacher, to be a devoted teacher, to establish something, to open the mind of a young person. No, you do not absolutely always need the big town. The small town can do it, too, very well.”
For some of his recent recitals, Pressler has performed a shorter program with no intermission, but that will not be the case for his Symphony Center appearance. “You have to think of an audience,” he said, “who needs an intermission for many reasons — to take a drink and the other things that one does at intermission. An intermission becomes an important focal point, and this program is long and intensive and beautiful.”
The concert will open with Mozart’s Rondo in A Minor, K. 511. When Pressler was a piano student, he remembers being told that he was too young to take on this work. “But at 80, I decided to do it — to learn it, to record it — because I said, ‘Nobody can tell me anymore that I’m too young for it.’” Rounding out the first half will be Schubert’s Sonata in G Major, D. 894.
The second half will begin with a piece that 89-year-old Hungarian composer György Kurtág, whom Pressler called a “dear friend,” wrote in his honor: Impromptu al ongarese . . . to Menahem Pressler. The pianist makes a point of performing it two times in succession. “When you play it and you play it again,” he said, “it sounds differently. It enriches your ear — your palette of hearing. It’s a wonderful, wonderful piece.”
Concluding the program will be Debussy’s Estampes (Prints) and four short works by Chopin.
Helping to make it possible for Pressler to continue what would be a tough schedule for any performer, let alone one in his 90s, is his daughter, Edna, who accompanies him. “She travels with me and cares for her father and makes it possible for me to be at my best and to get ready to play the concerts, and she’s there for me all the way.”
Even so, he acknowledges that the travel is arduous, especially with today’s security challenges and packed airplanes. “But when you get there,” he said, “and you sit on the stage, and you create the music and you feel how an audience is with you, and listens to you, and listens to these great composers that you have loved all your life, then you feel a sense of fulfillment, which makes it all worthwhile.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.