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Menahem Pressler: Listening to him play is an uplifting and reassuring experience

One hot night three summers ago, I came out of a concert with a pianist and a string quartet to find the restaurant they had booked for us was shut, as was everywhere else downtown. Ottawa, a seat of government, goes to bed early. At 11pm, the only joint open was an all-night diner with neon lighting. 

Someone called for a wine list — some hope. There were no vegetarian options either. Five of us muttered into cold beers. Menahem Pressler sat down at a plastic-topped table, and beamed. For three hours we argued over which of us had met more people who knew Brahms. Neither the Emerson Quartet nor I will ever forget that night. At seven o'clock next morning, Menahem was waiting in the breakfast room, ready for round two.

Ninety years old this month and known everywhere by his Hebrew name (meaning "comforter"), Menahem played for 58 years in the Beaux Arts Trio, the most prolific piano trio on record, the hardest working on the road. All the while he was gaining a reputation at the University of Indiana in Bloomington as the best remedial teacher on earth. When the trio packed up in 2008, he embarked on a second career as musical sage and soloist.

He has no set method for working with musicians. Rehearsing the Emerson, he stops them with a burst of criticism after almost every phrase. With Royal Academy of Music students he offers nothing but praise. Then he beams. In an instant, everything changes: their sound, expression, posture confidence. In a full musical life, I have never seen anything like the Menahem Effect — a transmission, mostly non-verbal, of the deepest truths in a mysterious art. Where it comes from is a well of goodness.

Nine years old in Magdeburg when the Nazis came to power, Menahem's memory of those terrifying times is of a church organist, a man called Kitzel, who risked arrest to cross the town and give him lessons at home. On Kristallnacht, Menahem hid beneath a bed as a mob smashed up the family store below. But the detail he remembers is the youth who stood at their front door in an SA uniform, shielding his Jewish neighbours from the violence.

The Presslers fled Europe in 1939 and reached Palestine where Menahem, traumatised, fell victim to an eating disorder. "Each time a meal was served, I couldn't eat," he told me in a Lebrecht Interview for BBC Radio 3 last year. "I fainted in a lesson, I was so involved in the music. But music gave meaning to my life. It saved my life."

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sd goh
March 27th, 2014
1:03 PM
The only one performance that I keep returning to, every time I wish to listen to the Beethoven Trio No.7 in B flat major, Op.97 "Archduke", is the Beaux Arts Trio's! Pressler is a sublime musician.

Peter in Kingston On
December 1st, 2013
6:12 PM
Well said, Norman. Excellent writing. Bang on! Thank you!

Gerald Robbins
December 1st, 2013
1:12 PM
Thank you, dear Norman Lebrecht for your touching and profound tribute to one of the greatest of artistic legends, pianist Menahem Pressler, an inspiration to his fellow artists, colleagues, students, and friends around the world. For any of us who have had the privilege to know him, all that you write about him in your probing article speaks deeply about what a genuine affection we all feel for him, his art, and the man personally. Thank you so very much for sharing your feelings about Menahem Pressler so sensitively and movingly. For me, personally, your tribute to Mr. Pressler is a great December 1st birthday gift in its inspirational message.

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