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Menahem Pressler, 1923-2023


It saddened me to read about the death two days ago of Menahem Pressler, founding pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio. With such illustrious partners as Isidore Cohen, violin; and Bernard Greenhouse, cello; Pressler performed all over the world, making many recordings of the best trio literature that remain unsurpassed for the ages. He appeared frequently as a solo pianist as well, including a short residency at my own Tufts University, and I remember that he made the first recording ever of Debussy’s ballet, La boîte à joujoux, at least 30 years before the Boston Symphony finally performed it in its orchestral version. The NYTimes obituary contains Pressler’s harrowing recollection of Kristallnacht from his 14th year. We remember him with wistful admiration; this noble artist lived so long and so well, until six months short of his 100th birthday. He appeared many times in Boston, including for the Celebrity Series and the BSO. Of his 2016 visit to the BSO, Georgia Luikens wrote for BMInt:

Mozart’s final piano concerto, No. 27 in B-flat Major, was premiered with the composer at the keyboard at what was to be his final concert outing in 1791. This concerto is the perfect example of the composer-as-virtuoso, energetic in its outer movements and delicately self-assured in the center. The great Menahem Pressler, physically frail at 93 and assisted on and off the stage, proved redoubtable in the concerto; he functioned both as virtuoso soloist and the compleat chamber partner. An enthralling performance, this was less a concerto featuring soloist-versus-ensemble than it was a respectful conversation among all parties, with sharing of attention and emphasis in a fluid exchange.

Pressler achieves a rare grace and a delicacy which brought out the filigree within each gesture, within careful arcs of sound mimicked by graceful hand movements as they left the keyboard at the conclusion of a phrase—almost as if he were handing the reins back to the conductor. There is a decidedly Classical touch here. The interplay between piano and orchestra sounded nuanced and refined, especially in the second movement. The third movement came at a restrained tempo; Pressler took the theme of this rondo with the coyness of a cat baiting a mouse. This slower tempo allowed the usually overheard inner motifs to come out. It was engaging and wondrous, marred only by the incessant coughing, squirming and whispering of a poorly trained and disrespectful audience.

Following two standing ovations, Pressler carefully returned to the stage with Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp Minor. This was a musical gift to an audience that was appreciative if not deserving. Pressler interpreted with generous rubato, bringing out the pathos of the work’s subtitle ‘Reminiscence’. A final, lengthy standing ovation for the great master followed and it was a privilege to stand and clap.

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