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Legendary Pianist and Chamber Musician Menahem Pressler has Died

Menahem Pressler
courtesy of the artist
Menahem Pressler

On May 6th, the pianist and co-founder of internationally acclaimed chamber ensemble Beaux Arts Trio passed away at the age of 99 in his London home. After fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939, Pressler eventually settled in the U.S., where a first prize in the Debussy International Piano Competition catapulted his career as a pianist.

From 1955 onward, Pressler was a member of the piano faculty of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, where he was Distinguished Professor of Music as the Charles Webb Chair. He split his time between homes in London and Indiana. That same year, Pressler established his reputation as a chamber musician by co-founding the Beaux Arts Trio with violinist Daniel Guilet and cellist Bernard Greenhouse. In 2008, after more than 50 years together, the trio disbanded, and Pressler pivoted largely to a solo career. He made his solo debut with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2013 at age 90, and continued to tour and perform until the end of his life.

In 2016, CRB's Brian McCreath interviewed Pressler in anticipation of his concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. They discussed Mozart, the Beaux Arts Trio, and Pressler's life as a pianist and educator. You can hear their interview using the audio player above and read the transcript below.


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath. I'm at Symphony Hall with Menahem Pressler, the pianist who is here to perform some chamber music with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Pressler, thank you for your time today.

Menahem Pressler My pleasure. My pleasure to be here, and certainly my pleasure to perform with these friends of mine.

Brian McCreath Well, and you have performed with the BSO on many occasions —

Menahem Pressler Oh, many occasions, yes.

Brian McCreath — and with the chamber players on other occasions.

Menahem Pressler Yes. Especially last summer in Tanglewood. We did the first . . . the actually, the second of the Mozart [piano] quartets, but this time we'll do the first one.

Brian McCreath Well, let's just start there. What is it about the G Minor quartet, the one that you're playing in this concert, that really sets it apart from other works by Mozart?

Menahem Pressler No, the key itself sets it apart. Mozart's — the G Minor, you remember this wonderful symphony [hums opening theme of Symphony No. 40] is in G minor. And Mozart really uses many keys for certain occasions. His biggest sadness, he uses E minor. When he has this Rondo in A minor, he has the sonata [Piano Sonata No. 8] in A minor. And very, very . . . when he's truly sad, that's the key that he uses. And the G minor is dramatic. It's a dramatic key because it starts with an exclamation [hums opening theme to Piano Quartet No.1]. This enormous outbreak start. And the pianist that [hums piano response to strings in opening of Piano Quartet No. 1] is . . . how shall I say, is a person who is in charge, so to speak, who announces after the orchestra speaks, is this. And you are so right to protest or to feel the way you do. Let's put it that way.

Brian McCreath Yeah. And is there a way in which that work, the G minor is is more similar to a concerto than —

Menahem Pressler No, they are all concerti.

Brian McCreath Okay [laughs].

Menahem Pressler Yeah. Because during the time when Mozart really wrote one concerto after the other. It started with [K.] 449 and it continues through this year. He wrote also the two [piano] quartets, but generally he wrote piano concerti besides other music. Now, if somebody he wrote it was new, he created it. If somebody would try to copy it, he would need more than one year to do that [Brian laughs]. Just to copy it, yes?

Brian McCreath Yeah.

Menahem Pressler So you can imagine what that year in inspiration in creativity was like. This is unheard of.

Brian McCreath Yeah, yeah.

Menahem Pressler Unheard of.

Brian McCreath When you come to a group like the BSO or Boston Symphony Chamber players, what is the difference between performing with a group like that for a single or even a few concerts compared to something like your life as it was with the Beaux Arts Trio, with people that you were with all the time? Is there a way in which the process is different?

Menahem Pressler Of course it is different. It is like living with someone that you have been living all your life, as was someone that you liked to be with, because the qualities that they have and the ability to adjust to each other, that what is so great, of course, being in a group as I was over 50 years [with] the Beaux Arts Trio, that needed no more adjustment, although we did adjust it every day, which is the most interesting part.

There wasn't a day when we were together that we did not rehearse. People would say, "What? You're rehearsing the pieces that you know so well." Yeah, but you would never know it so well that you don't need to rehearse, because it would take a lifetime to discover all that he had offered in there. The lifetime of doing it. Of course you're going to do it. Well, after all, you have learned it. You play it, you love it, you can play it. So . . . but there is always, as I would always say, there's always more to be found.

Brian McCreath And do you discover new things even —

Menahem Pressler Absolutely. Every time. Even every time. That's why I . . . there are people who love to perform, and I do. But I also love to practice. Now, that sets me apart from many of my friends and colleagues.

Brian McCreath [laughing] I would say so, yeah.

Menahem Pressler Because to wanting to practice means always you are on a discovery road. Now, that doesn't mean that you always discover no, that you do discover is already on a good day. Yes? You practice because it's your duty to practice, it's like an athlete who has to work out. If he doesn't do his runs or his weights or whatever it is, he's not being good enough. Now, the same is with a musician, a pianist, I'm sure violinist says the same, that we do practice. We practice.

But it is also a difference of practicing just your athletics, which you must, but also practice on a discovery way, which means you question all of what you're doing, you question your nuances, you question, questioning your timing. One of the important things is also the coloring. You always question "Is this the right one? Let me try this one." And very, very often . . . thank you, I am grateful for that, that I do find things. I have just the other day had to play the Brahms [Piano] Quintet and it was — and I have played it all my life, of course. But for me to have discovered certain things in it now. This is a joy.

Brian McCreath It — well, and amazing. Amazing.

Menahem Pressler It's amazing. And it's a great joy. Yes.

Brian McCreath It was in 1955 that the Beaux Arts Trio came together. And as I understand it, the first performance was that what we now know as Tanglewood.

Menahem Pressler Absolutely.

Brian McCreath And —

Menahem Pressler And the last performance in America was in Tanglewood.

Brian McCreath It was also at Tanglewood. Indeed. Indeed. And I've always wondered when I've heard that story, that whether for you there was . . . whether this was an intentional shift to chamber music. You were developing a career as a soloist in orchestras —

Menahem Pressler No, yeah, I was only a solo artist.

Brian McCreath Yeah.

Menahem Pressler It was just a sideline. I mean, at the time it started, right, as an accident. At the time, I was making many recordings for MGM. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the film company. I started to make the recording of the movie Song of Love that Rubinstein recorded in the film, and Rubinstein's record of that film came out on his record company, which was RCA Victor, or His Master's Voice, and MGM wanted to have on their own recordings. They started a recording company in order to have the film scores, to have scores.

So I was, right in the beginning with MGM and I recorded on [a] 78 [RPM record] the Song of Love, the music to that, and that happened to be a success, so I started to record quite a lot of things, and one day I said to the recording man, I said, "You know, I like to do some Mozart trios." Well he said, "Go ahead, get yourself two people and make it." Now, here, the important aspects that played a big role in my life was absolute luck. I lived in an apartment house where the second of the first violins of the NBC Orchestra was living. And I asked him, "Tell me, who should I play with? So he said, "Play with our concertmaster."

And so I met [Daniel] Guilet, and through him met [Bernard] Greenhouse. And we started. Now, we started to rehearse, just to do our Mozart trios and then say goodbye to each other, because that was the intention. That . . . The trio that was supposed to play in Tanglewood in the Beethoven-fest that Mr. [Charles] Munch had, had to cancel. Munch knew Guilet, called up and said, "I understand you're playing a trio. Why don't you come and play Beethoven? Can you? Would you, and can you?" He said, "Of course we can. Of course we can."

We — I had to learn it from scratch, of course. But it was a big learning and joyful learning and of course, a great privilege and pleasure to play it in Tanglewood. The fantastic part was that that particular concert became such an enormous success, enormous that we had six concerts before to do our Mozart trios. Right after Tanglewood, we had over 70 concerts. Yes, these are small concerts in little towns all over America. They were called community concerts at that time. But that's what was the beginning.

Brian McCreath That must have been quite a shift as well for the other members leaving behind the NBC Symphony.

Menahem Pressler No, he didn't leave behind. No, no, no. He played with the NBC Symphony and be at the concerts when he could.

Brian McCreath I understand.

Menahem Pressler No, it's like your concertmaster here. There's another concertmaster at the NBC. It — only when Toscanini was conducting. You have to be there. Yes.

Brian McCreath Yes.

Menahem Pressler Not the same year, surely.

Brian McCreath Right.

Menahem Pressler Same in Berlin. I know that. Two concertmasters, two first violas, etc.

Brian McCreath Sure. Sure. Wow. When was it then, that you and the other members realized this was really going to be a very serious thing that we would do now?

Menahem Pressler I would say in the first two years after we played because wherever we played . . . for some — these are little towns where actually the management wanted you to play and never come back. They would use those groups and then drop the myth after a year or two years. They all ask "When are you coming back?" We didn't know that. Only once in a while, they call me up and says "They tell us that you're not available." I said, "How come?" I was amazed. And we were available and that's how it started. And then, of course, our colleagues who heard the trio did all of a sudden say wonderful things about it. And it was really an affair, which did not start with the smile like it's in the movies. No, it was blood, sweat and tears. It was really very hard work.

Brian McCreath And I wanted to ask how, especially given the circumstances of how the three of you came together. How long did it take before you really were seeing things the same way musically?

Menahem Pressler That lasted all the 55 years [Brian laughs]. There is never, it never is like that. You see [coughs], it's like in a marriage. Do you always see the same way like your wife does? No.

Brian McCreath Right.

Menahem Pressler There's an accommodation. There is understanding. There's also a feeling, what's right for the situation. We would sometimes play this way and sometimes that way.

Brian McCreath Yeah. And then over the course of time, a few members came in and out. And in 2002, when Daniel Hope arrived —

Menahem Pressler Yes.

Brian McCreath You said that you, as I understand it, experienced a sort of burst of re-energization, re-energy.

Menahem Pressler Yeah, that came. It was Daniel. Actually, the re-organization started with Yung Uck Kim.

Brian McCreath Yes.

Menahem Pressler It was right after that, there was another group in there which was very good people, but not the way I really loved it. There was too many things that I — very good, I must say, but I just did not love it. And so when it was reorganized with Yung Uck Kim and Antonio Meneses, that's when the trio again started to bloom, and I could get . . . By now, I really knew what I wanted.

I also knew what I had to convince my friends, and I was also capable of understanding whatever they brought in to be able to adjust to, and not only adjust to, but love. And then when Yung Uck Kim couldn't play anymore, and Daniel came in, he was wonderful. He was the youngest, very young. He was 28 when he came in. He was pure sunshine, pure joy to work with. He's still pure sunshine now with his, on his solo. And he's still a joy to be with. He's a unique person, he's a unique personality, but he is one of the most loving and beautiful one that I know.

Brian McCreath He is a wonderful player. I agree, yeah, I —

Menahem Pressler It's not just a wonderful player. It is more that I'm saying. I can even say this, that he prolonged my life.

Brian McCreath Oh, my.

Menahem Pressler Yeah. I didn't know, of course, that I now at 90 would have the biggest success as a soloist. I did not know. I never even planned it that way. I had no plan. I thought at the time it finished, I would play some concerts, yes, but then I played a solo recital in Paris, and they made a DVD. And the strange part was that the reviewer said, "Why didn't you stop earlier?" This is true [Brian laughs]. I was stunned. I was stunned. And it started from there.

And you know that this year I played with the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam — in three weeks, the Concertgebouw, Mariinsky [Theatre] in St. Petersburg, with [Valery] Gergiev, with Berlin Philharmonic with Semyon Bychkov. And I was given, or was given . . . invited to be artist-in-residence of the Berlin Philharmonic. I will play this very year in one of the important concerts. I will play chamber music with their first chair man. I will teach at their institute. And they will play the music I love. Now, this I didn't imagine. And then in Paris, I just made two DVD — I mean, a DVD of two Mozart concerti with the Orchestre du Paris.

Brian McCreath Wow.

Menahem Pressler Wow is right! [both laughing] Now, I would say like a dog, "Wow wow!" is something. First of all, when you are 90, to travel, to travel, to get there, to practice. And to be capable and willing and wanting and loving. No, this is the present of God.

Brian McCreath It is.

Menahem Pressler Yeah, it is. Absolutely.

Brian McCreath It truly is. And I was curious about that moment when you left behind Beaux Arts [Trio], when the group finally disbanded —

Menahem Pressler I didn't leave it behind. I never will leave it behind. This part of me. It is in my blood. I will also play a concerto that way. You see, I will not accept a tutti because generally speaking, the pianist is only interested in his solo, like I was when I was younger. Of course, I didn't care what the tutti did. What I did care was what I did. But now I can't play if the tutti is not exactly what fits into my sort of the concerto.

And of course, the great advantage of age, I'm now older than any of the conductors, and I know the concerto better than any conductor. Of course, the . . . for them it is a piece, they are wonderful musicians, and they will do well without me. But with me, the concerto is a lifetime voyage. I've played it when I was young. I've practiced it, taught it. You know, I'm a teacher. Taught it very, very intensely. And intensely by teaching, I learned. You see, I learned by myself. What do you do in order to be able to play well? And so when I play a concerto now, it is from the first note to the last note part of me and I do request, and strangely or happily, I have it.

Brian McCreath Your knowledge of these concertos, and as you say, you're even more knowledge[able] than most of the conductors that you work with.

Menahem Pressler Absolutely. I will tell you, I had wonderful experiences, especially what was almost an outstanding experience with in this Gergiev. It was a big piano festival, and he conduct opera at night, it's two concerts during the day with young and old and famous and young pianists. So it's a half an hour of rehearsal. So I come in and the Mariinsky Orchestra, of course, is this orchestra. Then he started to conduct the tutti, right at the first five bars, I knew that's wrong. So I immediately interrupted. But what was fabulous was whatever I said, he translated immediately into Russian. We didn't have a half an hour, as usual, we had an hour. And after we hugged after the hour, I went back to the hotel.

Now came the biggest surprise of my life, and the biggest surprise that everyone who has anything to do this Gergiev had. He asked for extra rehearsal time. That has never happened. Never. They even told me "You may play with him without a rehearsal." Somebody else would have the rehearsal time. He asked for an extra rehearsal. Postponed my concert from 3:00 to 3:30, in order to get that rehearsal in. You had 1100 people running around [both laughing].

And there were concerts in all of these halls. I mean, pianists by the dozen, but not by the dozen, but quite a few dozen [Brian laughs]. Anyway, it was a tremendous experience in the end, and the lovely part was at night I heard him conduct [Il] Trovatore and we heard him do, which was also unbelievable, Otello. He did two opera performances that I will always from all my life remember. It was stunning. Stunning. Not only did he have great singer, yes, he did have great singers, but he was . . . like we had last night. This here with your conductor.

Brian McCreath Andris Nelsons, yes.

Menahem Pressler Yes, do Salome.

Brian McCreath Salome.

Menahem Pressler We had great singers, wonderful singers, magnificent. But it was the young men who did an astonishing performance. I was so thrilled. I cannot tell you.

Brian McCreath Wow.

Menahem Pressler I'm still vibrating from that performance.

Brian McCreath It was a spectacular performance.

Menahem Pressler It was and it is. And I will always remember that that younger person can do miracles.

Brian McCreath Yeah.

Menahem Pressler And he did.

Brian McCreath Is there music that you want to learn still that you don't know very well?

Menahem Pressler Of course I have, even [György] Kurtág, who's a very famous composer —

Brian McCreath Kurtág, yeah.

Menahem Pressler — and the most difficult man, and the best musician I know, and writes pieces for me, which is unheard of, which is frightening. And each time he has always something to say critical. But I will tell you, his critique is that it is wonderful, his sense of depth in music and, of course, his sense of perfection. That's why for him to write a two minute piece takes him — I don't know. It's unheard of. He has pieces that he did never finish. He could not fini — he's such a perfectionist. Yes, I do love to learn new pieces. It's not as easy as it once was. I used to learn by the bushel. Yes, I used to learn very fast. That's why I think we recorded around 60 CDs. I mean, for a group, that's a record [both laughing].

Brian McCreath It must be. It must be. Yeah. When the Beaux Arts Trio first got started in the 1950s, I don't even know, were piano trios very well-known —

Menahem Pressler No, no, no. The chamber music societies didn't want piano trios. They would say "Oh, it is a piano performance, piano concerto, he only has two strings.” Or they would say "It's an accompanist of two strings, the piano, because the balance was never really achieved." And I would say that the Beaux Arts was the one for whom balance played a vital, vital place. Guilet, I must say the one that I feel was truly responsible for that was my first violinist, he was an ogre.

But on the other hand, he knew so much more and so deeply. And he was passionate in love with chamber music. And of course, when you have a Greenhouse, you have the most beautiful cello playing that you can imagine right next to you. The sound is bothered, bewitched and bewildered, yes? [Brian laughs] Like the song says. No, it was the most beautiful. And then to fit the piano in there, and for a piano to learn what it is when a bow touches the string, which is not immediate like the piano. It doesn't do [imitating the gesture of a bow touching a string]. To be able to do that with the string took time. But I mean, I started to understand what it is. I was able to do it.

Brian McCreath And now in all this work that you do with concertos, have you have you changed a little?

Menahem Pressler No. No. In a concerto, you very often have to do that, what I'm telling you, because if you play Mozart, yes? You have a oboe, I have a bassoon, you have a flute playing the solo, you have this violins playing. You play like in chamber music. As a matter of fact, Mozart's concerti are truly his greatest stream of music. Yes, in the opera he presents the deepest feelings that he has, but he presents it in the Piano Concerto too. No one has written 27 concerti.

Brian McCreath Well Menahem Pressler, I so appreciate your time today, and I'm very much looking forward to the performance tomorrow night. Thank you so much.

Menahem Pressler I would be thrilled for you to be there. I know I love my friends, and so, to my dismay, Jules [Eskin] is not playing. And I do know him for so, so many years, yes.

Brian McCreath I'm sure that's true.

Menahem Pressler And it's true. He's a character. That's true [Brian laughs]. And I love the character. I love arguing with him. And it's a joy because it comes from the same understanding, deep feeling for the music in his way. And to accommodate it is a joy. Not that you do like he does, no from time to time, you have to convince him that you're right, but that takes doing. He's not that easily convinced. And —

Brian McCreath Well, it speaks to your respect for each other well.

Menahem Pressler Oh absolutely. Absolutely.

Brian McCreath Yeah. Thank you again. I appreciate it.