Here’s To A Pianistic Poet

Menahem Pressler’s enduring genius lies in his generosity of spirit and simplicity of approach

Music
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.”

His teachers were fellow refugees. Eliyahu Rudiakov was a Russian pianist. Leo Kestenberg, a Busoni pupil, had been director of the Prussian Ministry of Culture through the Weimar Republic, a visionary who gave Berlin its modernist edge. In the white heat of Tel Aviv, Menahem acquired a universal span of musical styles.

Victory in a US piano competition put him on a fast career track. Leonard Bernstein called him “a genuine pianistic poet”. Married by the Israeli Chief Rabbi Abraham Kook, he moved into the New York hotel inhabited by Artur Schnabel. A chance encounter with Daniel Guilet, Toscanini’s concertmaster, and a cellist, Bernard Greenhouse, sparked an unusual chemistry. After a debut at the Tanglewood Festival, the trio criss-crossed the American continent, bringing chamber music to town      halls with the diligence of ordained missionaries. 

“We had to go by car because the fee was so low that we would never have broken even,” he relates. “The contract said never more than 500 miles between concerts. Sometimes we drove 700 miles. We played seven concerts a week. After the concert nothing was open, so we ate potato chips from a vending machine. Nothing fazed us.”

Like every good chamber ensemble, the trio argued all the time. When Guilet retired after 14 years, Isidore Cohen took his place. As their fame grew, Menahem was happy to shelter behind a collective identity. He credits his wife, Sara, with keeping him sane. “She would always say to me when there was some problem at home, ‘sorgt dich nicht — don’t worry, go!’ Without her support I would never have done what I have done.”

He disbanded the trio five years ago, unwilling “to bring up another violinist”, and was looking forward to time at home when the solo dates started to flow. “I never thought that I was known personally to the extent that I was,” he says shyly. Top orchestras — the Concertgebouw, Paris, Berlin Philharmonic-booked him to play concertos. On the eve of his 90th birthday, two labels have issued solo recordings.

Listen to Menahem Pressler play Beethoven’s 31st sonata (on Bis) or the Bagatelles (on La Dolce Vita) and, from the opening notes, you revert to a time before flashy playing and the fools of fame; a time when text was sacrosanct and sound was a reflection of a player’s character. There is nothing extravert or impulsive about Menahem’s playing. Each note is measured for its worth and comes up sounding refreshing. The listener emerges uplifted and reassured — elevated by eternal verities and comforted that, in this pair of hands, they somehow survive.

I have thought long and hard about what it is that Menahem Pressler does in music that is matched by no other musician. I have also discussed it with him. The simplicity of his approach is so profound it cannot be contradicted, yet the depth is audible even to the shallow-minded. Opposites such as this belong to the realms of genius.

The secret, I think, lies in his tendency to see the good in others. When Menahem takes you as a friend, he offers nothing less than love. When you spend time with him, you feel a better person than you really are. When he applies these gifts to music, they blow away the egotism, greed and cynicism that encrust the art in present times and restore the pristine naivety intended by its composers. There, that’s all there is to it. 

On December 16, his 90th birthday, readers, wherever you may be, please raise a glass to Menahem Pressler with a cry of ”Lechaim — to life!”