Menahem Pressler may not impress you visually when you see him walk out onto the stage and sit down to play: he appears to be a few inches above five feet and has rather smallish hands. Moreover, he was eighty-seven at the time of this concert and plays with little sense of flash or virtuosity, as if the spirit of Liszt were miles away. His manner at the piano is modest too, displaying few physical affectations (no flailing arms or jumping up to slam chords). In addition, he reads from the score and uses a page-turner. Having noted all this, I must also note that he plays like a true master of all the repertory he performs here.
Pressler was the pianist for over fifty years in the famed Beaux Arts Trio and thus became identified primarily as a chamber musician, rather than soloist or recitalist. But here we see his considerable gifts as a recitalist, and his IS impressive. His account of the Beethoven Sonata #31 may not erase memories of Brendel or Schnabel or Ashkenazy, but it is totally convincing, with a splendid and quite epic first movement and utterly glorious finale.
His Chopin Mazurkas capture the varying moods of these challenging pieces, from the brightness and exoticism of the Op. 7, #1, to the profoundly forlorn character of the Op. 17, #4. Pressler exhibits a lighter touch for the Debussy Estampes, but more importantly his chameleonic style adapts well to the composer's Impressionism. Especially brilliant is La Soirée dans Grenade, which features a powerfully dramatic middle section. Pressler's Jardins sous la pluie brims with energy and spirit, and draws enthusiastic applause from the audience.
Pressler's Schubert is equally brilliant: he makes the first movement's main theme sing so beautifully and so much else throughout the sonata comes across as more colorful and spirited than what one typically hears from others pianists. Pressler wrote the notes to this recording himself and provides much insightful biographical information, including his Jewish family's escape from Nazi Germany in 1940. This is quite a beautifully filmed and vividly recorded concert that offers performances that are amazingly well played by a pianist who seems totally at ease and fully in control throughout. Pressler is great pianist as this disc clearly demonstrates.
Copyright © 2012, Robert Cummings