Menahem Pressler Music as a spiritual treasure

Concert pianist Menahem Pressler
Concert pianist Menahem Pressler | Photo (detail): © Menahem Pressler

The joys and sorrows of his life as a musician are closely associated with Germany. Menahem Pressler looks back over his 70-year career as a pianist.

He is the world’s longest-serving and most amiable concert pianist. In December 2013 he celebrated his 90th birthday, and the CD he released that same year is called simply Schubert – Mozart – Beethoven. Menahem Pressler has always had a special relationship to those three composers, already during the decades of the famous Beaux Arts Trio which he founded in 1955 and led until 2008, and then particularly so during his late solo career – the second in his long life as a musician. After all, it was as a soloist that he had his first international breakthrough. The fact that he is touring again on his own seems to be a source of considerable delight for Pressler.

Boundless delight in music

His master classes are also in great demand because as a teacher he takes them very seriously. It can be somewhat perturbing for the one or other student when the nice old gentleman suddenly becomes a strict taskmaster. And sometimes Pressler can also be very direct in formulating his judgement, especially when persuasion does not seem to be doing the job. In Switzerland in 2013 it was possible to experience him in that capacity: during the Verbier Festival there he rehearsed and gave concerts with young musicians, full of passion and with a sheer boundless delight in music. Pressler’s strictness in his treatment of music and young musicians, however, stems not from any self-righteousness disguised as pedagogics, but rather from his unconditional devotion to the great works of music.

Menahem Pressler plays Mozart’s concerto for piano and orchestra No. 17 in G Major, Seoul Arts Center Music Hall, 2012

That kind of thing is not popular anymore. Yet one of the basic presuppositions of a musician like Menahem Pressler is to approach a work with humility and to preserve this attitude, even when he feels he has mastered the work perfectly. It almost causes him physical discomfort to hear or read about young musicians attempting to place their own artistry above the composer’s by summing up a composers’ supposed intentions. That would be inconceivable for Pressler. He adheres to the line of a European tradition from which even life’s worst detours could not tempt him to stray. That tradition and that understanding of music, which have become ever more deeply ingrained in his own consciousness and subconsciousness over the course of his life, represent an indestructible treasure which he once discovered as a child and has always carried within him since. For a German, it is almost embarrassing to hear the rapture and gratitude in Menahem Pressler’s voice when he speaks about German Classicism and Romanticism – about the country where his gods of music reside.

Consolation in music

This is not something to be taken for granted, on the contrary. Pressler spent his early years in Magdeburg, from his birth on 16 December 1923 to his flight in 1939. He was 15 years old when it became evident that the Jewish Pressler family could no longer remain in Nazi Germany. For a long time his mother had resisted emigration: first they missed the train to Triest, from where they were to travel on by ship to Israel; then they somehow managed to get there. The family of merchants was very attached to Magdeburg. “My uncles and aunts were then burnt in Auschwitz,” Pressler says dryly. He must say it that way in order to distance himself from the horror, a horror that he refuses to let destroy his life. And music has helped him in this, consoling him when consolation proffered by people reached its limits. At the latest since 1946, when he won the Debussy competition in San Francisco, music has been so much more to him: his private dream became a public life as an artist, that has continued uninterrupted to today.

Always close to the work

Pressler has never been abandoned by his gods. When one listens to the rarely performed Piano Sonata in G Major by Franz Schubert recorded by Pressler in May 2013 one gets some impression of what it still means to this pianist to play that particular work as if he were doing so for the first time. Independent of the fashions of the day and above and beyond pure virtuoso performance, Pressler always remains close to the work, and ultimately to the composer as well, and to that cultural realm to which he owes both joy and sorrow.

Even after emigrating to Israel, Pressler continued to speak the German language, and his Israeli wife learned German. They spoke German with their children, read Heine and Goethe, played Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven. “I understand the people who were unable to do that after Auschwitz,” says Pressler. “But for me that land of culture always existed, and I have never let it be taken from me, and have preserved it to this very day.” Pressler has not just preserved this musical treasure for himself, he has shared it with the world – and continues to do so. When he plays Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Rondo in A Minor, which has been plunked away at so many piano competitions, it sounds just like what it is: a minor revelation, a simple salvation, unhoped-for and also a little beyond belief.