By Kyle MacMillan
CHICAGO — Menahem Pressler holds a special place in 20th-century chamber music. He was the pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio — arguably the greatest such ensemble in modern history — for its entire 53-year existence.
Many longtime fans of the group no doubt have warm memories of the smiling, round-faced dynamo hunched over the keyboard, serving as both the collegial glue for this threesome and its interpretative motor. After the trio disbanded in 2008, it did not seem unrealistic or unfair to assume that he would continue his teaching at Indiana University but largely disappear from the performance scene. Instead, the 92-year-old pianist has done just the opposite. He is enjoying a late-career renaissance as a soloist that continued Jan. 24 with his extraordinary debut on the Symphony Center Presents Piano Series under the auspices of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
This unlikely development has even caught him by surprise. It began with a well-reviewed solo recital in Paris in March 2011 that was recorded live and released on CD and DVD and has continued with a steady line-up of high-profile engagements.
Almost nothing about Pressler’s Jan. 24 recital was routine, starting with the startling rarity of a performer of his age. By comparison, the celebrated pianist Alfred Brendel retired from the concert stage in 2008 at age 77. And indeed, Pressler looked somewhat feeble as he shuffled onto the stage with the help of a cane and his page turner for the evening, pianist Mio Nakamura, until recently a member of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. After Pressler took a bow and acknowledged the hearty opening applause, she helped him settle into a chair (not the usual piano bench), with a cushion providing additional support for his back, and made sure it was the right distance from the keyboard.
Nakamura then placed the first score on the piano’s music stand. Pressler played from the music for the entire concert, another departure from the norm for a recital. But such an approach seemed less a concession to age and more a product of being a chamber musician and having a score in front of him for nearly his entire life. While he had hoped to establish a solo career after winning the Debussy International Piano Competition in San Francisco in 1946, that dream was never realized, to the contentment of Beaux Arts Trio fans everywhere.
Then the concert began, and what an unforgettable experience it was. Unlike those of many younger pianists, especially the hot shots eager to make names for themselves, this performance had nothing to do with technical bravado, slick effects, dazzling finger work, or sex appeal. No, this was music-making of uncommon profundity and honesty from an artist who has nothing to prove; from an artist who has been performing longer than all but one of the composers on his program lived; from an artist who clearly has an immense wealth of musical wisdom to share. It is no exaggeration to call the resulting experience entrancing, otherworldly, and even a little mystical.
All these qualities were in evidence from the opening work, Mozart’s modest and wonderful Rondo in A minor, K. 511. Pressler took a gentle, unhurried approach, allowing it to breathe and unfold on its own terms in an open and spacious manner. Most striking was the sense of freedom that he brought to his playing, not so much interpreting the music as engaging it and being present with it in an unforced, humble, and appealing way.
Much the same could be said of the afternoon’s longest and, in many ways, most challenging work, Franz Schubert’s well-known Sonata in G major, D. 894. Again, Pressler took his time, offering a soft, deliberative, and quite beautiful take on the first movement, judiciously adding power and emphasis as needed. When he got to the final movement, it was easy to wonder just how Allegretto the Allegretto would be. And while it was on the slower side, it in no way dragged. Indeed, it possessed a rhythmic snap with a real sense of momentum. A deep, well-developed musicality undergirded the whole performance, and along the way, there was no shortage of individual moments — a phrase here, a chord there — to savor.
The pianist opened the second half with a work that was written for him: Impromptu al ongarese (in the Hungarian manner) . . . to Menahem Pressler by Hungarian composer György Kurtág. This stark, uncompromising five-minute work — an outlier on the otherwise more conventional program — comes across as a series of isolated, discordant phrases and musical bits, like puzzle pieces that listeners have to assemble in their heads. There is no real sense of a beginning or end; it just concludes abruptly. Pressler took just the right approach, offering an interpretation that was straightforward, clear, and unvarnished in any way.
Next came what was arguably the highlight of the concert, a performance of Claude Debussy’s Estampes, in which Pressler lovingly captured the spontaneous, dreamy, and essential French sensibility of this musical travelogue, infusing it with sparkling drive and verve. He brought out the distinctive character of the three pieces: the shimmering, delicate “Pagodes (Pagodas),” the Spanish-flavored “La soirée dans Grenade (Evening in Granada),” and the evocative, slightly darker “Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the Rain).”
The rest of the program was devoted to Chopin. Pressler began with three mazurkas — B-flat major, Op. 7, No. 1; F minor, Op. 7, No. 3; and A minor, Op. 17, No. 4. He assured that they were more than technical displays or diverting miniatures by investing them with depth and introspection. While he again opted for the slower, more subdued side in these pieces, he never lost sight of their dance qualities and innate Slavic flavor. Rounding out the program was the Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47.
After an extended ovation, Pressler returned for an encore, a contemplative take on Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. Posth. By that point, the concert had run nearly two and a half hours, yet another unexpected aspect of this afternoon. Though Pressler had delivered a program that would have been ample challenge for a performer of any age, his playing in no way seemed fatigued. Put simply, he can still do everything he needs to do at the keyboard.
Kyle MacMillan recently marked his 25th anniversary as a music critic and reporter. After serving 11 years as fine arts critic for the Denver Post, he is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and writes for such national publications as Opera News and The Wall Street Journal.