contents of the Piano mag
Piano mag

Menahem Pressler

by Frederic Gaussin

Menahem Pressler would be delighted, Maestro, to hear you talk about the "the world of yesterday," Die Welt von Gestern, that of Europe before World War II, the world you grew up in.

Menahem Pressler: I was born on the banks of the Elbe, in Magdeburg, in the Bundesland of Saxony-Anhalt, but that is the only thing I share with von Clausewitz. I grew up in an upper middle class Jewish family. My father was a cloth trader. His shop and workshop were in the city. The cultural life there was very active: theater, literature, painting, and cinema – this was essential for all of us. As a child, I started on the violin and my brother on the piano, but his natural laziness led him quickly to let me take his lessons, such that eventually I had to make a choice, and I chose the untransportable instrument. I was barely ten years old when the Nazis won the majority in the Reichstag, in 1933. I do, though, have a very clear memory of the Kristallnacht [November 9, 1938]: I can still hear the glass shattering in the shops they were ravaging, the shrieks of terrified people, the sound of boots, orders – I can still smell the acrid smoke of the fires... We hid in our own house. My father's shop was destroyed. The situation worsened to the point where we looked for the quickest way to leave the country, while it was still possible to do so. My parents never believed that democracy would protect us. I don't know how they managed, but they obtained Polish passports in our names. At that time, the administrative system was not yet strictly monitoring the movement of Jewish citizens. My father pretended that he was taking us on vacation to the Adriatic Sea, my mother, brother, sister, and I, and no one asked for further explanation. We were very lucky. When we reached Trieste, we were able to obtain visas and leave for Palestine, which was then under British mandate. Our boat made landfall at Haifa in June of 1940, the day of the French defeat. It was there, in Israel, that I truly became the man, the young man, that I was. I forged the discipline, ethics, and values that would stay with me for the rest of my life. Initially, for months on end, I was in a state of total despair and shock. My grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins – they all died in Auschwitz. Only my immediate family escaped the Holocaust. We suffered the tragedy from afar, we didn't miss a single detail of it, but we were welcomed, protected, and we lived – which gives you a very acute, very particular perception of daily life. My Jewish identity is the core of my being. But I chose not to give up. In Tel-Aviv, I was able to take lessons with Eliahu Rudiakov, who was a pianist. Oddly enough, his son Michael later became the student of Bernard Greenhouse, the cellist in our Beaux-Arts Trio, before he became principal cellist in the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. Rudiakov really encouraged me. I also had the privilege of working with Leo Kestenberg (1882-1962), who was then the director of the Bronislaw Huberman orchestra, the future Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Myriam Scherchen had me read the letters Kestenberg wrote to her father, Hermann Scherchen, who was the conductor when this orchestra was born.

Kestenberg did all he could to integrate as many refugees as possible, violinists and others, some of considerable talent, who were flooding to him from the old continent as it was rendered asunder. He was born a subject of the Habsburg Empire, but he grew up in Prague were his father was a cantor in a synagogue. Kestenberg studied piano in Berlin before he began teaching at the Stern Conservatory and the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory. He met Busoni rather early on, and Busoni dedicated his Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music to him. He had a trio, and played an important intellectual and political role in the Weimar Republic as a journalist, cultural advisor to the Minister of Prussia, and reformer of musical instruction. He was a pacifist with social-democratic leanings who believed that art for the people was possible. He was an active teacher, caught up with his teaching of teachers and children, and a tireless leader. Kestenberg worked closely with Otto Klemperer at the Kroll Opera House. At the Arts Academy, he hired Busoni, then his rival Pfitzner, then Schoenberg, in the name of a courageous policy of excellence that he applied without compromise. He appointed Franz Schreker as head of the Music Academy. He had close ties with the Cassirer family, that of the philosopher and the art traders, as well as with Albert Einstein, Hindemith, and Krenek. His friend Oskar Kokoschka painted his portrait. He was a key figure in the effervescent and cosmopolitan Berlin of the 1920s – a vivacious figure who was the life and breath of a fusion of all forms of artistic expression. The Nazis chased him out of Germany as soon as they took power. When I met him, Kestenberg was reading a book a day. He still had his passion for the institutional aspects of musicology. He was going blind at that point, and his wife would read aloud for him. He was a man who had a profound effect on me.

When you moved to California, in 1946, did you socialize with other members of the exiled intelligentsia?

I had decided to launch my career. For all the reasons you can imagine, coming back to Europe after the war was impossible for me, and I had also just married Sara: I needed to provide for our future. In Hollywood, I spent time with Franz Werfel, Thomas Mann, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Franz Wachsmann... Most of the time I saw them at their homes or at concerts at the Hollywood Bowl. Their presence on the American soil, amongst the exotic vegetation in the California heat, was in stark contrast with their education, origins, past, with everything they were. Alma Mahler, who was no longer in her youth, but who had maintained her strength of character and something of her legendary charm (the very charm that overcame Klimt, Zemlinsky, Gropius, and Mahler, I suppose), invited me over one day to play at her house. It was very hot that day, and I couldn't stand it anymore – I had to ask her permission to take off my suit jacket. She replied, deliciously, "If it were up to me, Herr Pressler, you could take everything off!" She opened wide the bay windows in her villa, and I recall that I gave a concert for the whole neighborhood. I also met Egon Petri (1881-1962), with whom I studied over a summer at Mills College in Oakland. Petri was a great virtuoso with a tremendous repertoire, a first-rate musician, but I would not say that he was a great artist at the piano. He had started out on the violin as per the desires of his father, a reputed Dutch violinist, and he studied at the Staatskapelle in Dresden, which gives you an idea of his talent. Kreisler had encouraged him to make a career of it, but Busoni convinced to give up the bow.
When I met him, Petri had health problems, possibly heart trouble, which prevented him from recording the Hammerklavier. The war had taken him by surprise when he was in Poland. The decision to immigrate to America meant that he turned his back forever on his native land, and he never returned to play in Germany. He didn't really love or defend Schumann's music: this trait describes him perfectly, because nothing about him came anywhere near fantasy or folly. I remember that I played the Fantasy for him. The finale from the second movement intimidated him, even though I'm sure he could have played it without a single wrong note. He told me the following story. He asked his great friend Backhaus, "Wilhelm, what's your secret for playing these leaps so well in the coda? How is your aim so good?!" Backhaus replied: "Well, it's actually quite simple. I work like crazy beforehand. And then on stage during the concert, I pray!" But Backhaus was phenomenal. The Decca sound engineer who was tasked with recording the Brahms Concerto No.2 with the Vienna Philharmonic under Schuricht's baton told me that Backhaus had done three straight run-throughs in a row... one as perfect as the next. All he had to do was focus on the orchestra. Egon Petri was very serious. His personality was that of a philosopher, an exegete. He played the complete works of Bach, if you can imagine, which he edited with Busoni for Breitkopf & Hartel, as well as much of Beethoven, Liszt, all of Busoni of course, Brahms (marvelously), and even Rachmaninoff's 3rd Concerto. He had very precise ideas about interpretation, with a vision of the piece as a whole, and he had a powerful sound. It was really a delight to talk with him. I often played with my face very close to the keyboard, which Petri found particularly annoying. He finally asked me if ivory had a special smell that I simply couldn't resist... Busoni dedicated the All'Italia Elegy to him, a very virtuosic work, while Kestenberg was the dedicatee for Erscheinung, a more spiritual work, much more in line with him, like a mirror of the man that he was.

Do you consider yourself then the last, still active representative of Ferrucio Busoni's prestigious school of technique and thought?

I am indeed very proud of this heritage, and aware that I carry part of it with me. Busoni was the greatest after Liszt. We just spoke of Petri and Kestenberg, who worshiped him, but I shouldn't forget Eduard Steuermann (1892-1964), who remains the teacher who had the most decisive artistic influence on me. Not only was Steuermann previously a student of Busoni, in Switzerland and Berlin, but he was also, and I should say especially, a student of Schoenberg. He gave the premiere of Pierrot lunaire, under the direction of Scherchen, the Concerto for piano, under Stokowski, and, much later, the Ode to Napoleon – in fact, he premiered practically all of Schoenberg's pieces that required a pianist. Arnold Schoenberg made him his official pianist, in Vienna, for the "society for private musical performances," as we would say in English (Verein für Musikalische Privataufführungen). I met him in the United States, where he had emigrated in 1938. I simply can't tell you how profound, sensitive, and cultivated he was. Steuermann was from Galicia, he thus had obtained Polish nationality at the end of the World War I. He was the dedicatee of the Variations op. 27 by Webern and a close collaborator of Alban Berg (he did the piano reduction of Wozzeck so that Erich Kleiber could give the premiere). Steuermann matured in the midst of the Second Viennese School, at the forefront of the avant-garde, but his exceptional talent led him to be in contact with an uncountable number of musicians from all different horizons, such as Poulenc, Ravel, Rudolf Kolisch, Hans Eisler, Rene Leibowitz. Theodor Adorno was influenced and trained by him in part, as was Alfred Brendel. What science, what an amazing grasp of the repertoire, what emotional engagement! Here we're speaking once again about learned polyglots, whose universal genius was not limited to the art of playing both hands together in a given piece. He was able to compare, from memory, a phrase from a lied by Hugo Wolf with another from a Mahler or Bruckner symphony, or from a Wagner opera. Contrary to Petri, he taught and understood Schumann in a unique way. We wouldn't dream of playing the Kreisleriana for him without first becoming familiar with what he called Schumann's "syntax and vocabulary." Fugue, counterpoint, the polyphonic style of the great masters, Mozart's classical writing, Reger's scores, he understood all of them perfectly, and in that way was truly the disciple of Schoenberg and Busoni. He also often referenced Heinrich Schenker. He was very kind to his average students, and terribly demanding with his talented ones, as with me and my fellow student Russell Sherman. He wrote extensively, composed extensively, a string quartet, a piano trio which I played, variations for orchestra...

This makes me think of another major intellectual in the pianistic and musical world: what about your compatriot Arthur Schnabel? Were you in contact with him in the United States as well?

Schnabel? That's a long story... Before I left Germany, my organ professor had decided to teach me right up to the end, despite the risk of being denounced or punished for teaching a non-Aryan student. Edmund Kitzel, this good and brave man, believed in my abilities. Then when I was in Trieste, he managed to send me a heavy package filled with scores, accompanied by an encouraging note written by his own hand, which told me to persevere no matter what. Among the scores he sent as a souvenir of the motherland was Debussy's Reflets dans l'eau, and it was indeed when I won first prize in the Debussy competition in San Francisco, in 1946, that I started to find my place in the music world. Winning this competition allowed me to debut in Carnegie Hall with the Schumann concerto, under the baton of Eugene Ormandy directing the Philadelphia Orchestra. Then doors started to open for me. I naturally admired Schnabel quite a lot, I was dying to meet him, but I needed someone to introduce me to him. By chance, the director of the Jerusalem Conservatory had noticed me during the war, and her husband was none other than Emil Hauser, the founder of the Budapest Quartet. Hauser knew Schnabel very well. He spoke warmly of me over dinner one evening, saying that I was a young Israeli pianist of German origins who was making waves in California, and was looking for a mentor and support. Schnabel was very quick to say: "That doesn't mean anything. Anybody can play Debussy." He swore by Beethoven and "serious" music. I certainly reacted in a childish, stupid, prideful way, looking back, but this cutting judgment rid me of all desire to meet the great Schnabel. Later, I often ran into him in New York, because we both lived in the Peter Stuyvesant building. I would even sometimes hold the elevator doors for him, but I never said a word to him! But how I was inspired by his Schubert Sonatas, his intelligence, the magic of his sound... To this day, I consider his Beethoven 4th Concerto to be without equal. I think constantly about his interpretation when I play it. He brings us into a dream, a dream that's being transcribed as we hear it. Few artists manage to attain that level of luminosity.

How did the Beaux-Arts Trio adventure begin?

By chance, or nearly. My career followed its natural course for a few years. I had recorded a few solo albums for MGM – Schumann, Prokofiev, Shostakovitch, Ernst Bloch, Milhaud... – and I wanted to record some chamber music. I was thinking of a Mozart trio, but I didn't belong to any particular ensemble. The artistic director suggested that I form an ensemble, and I had spent a summer after the war working with Robert Casadesus, in Fontainebleau. Through him, I met Daniel Guilet (1899-1990), a Russian violinist, originally Guilevitch, who had studied at the Paris Conservatory under the direction of Enesco and had made his mark in the famous Joseph Calvet Quartet. Under the occupation, he had tried to leave France because he was Jewish, but he wasn't in a good spot: he needed to quickly obtain a visa for the United States, while he still could (some family members were getting it for him), but he also needed money to buy a transatlantic ticket. Casadesus immediately gave him the money he needed, which saved his life. Few people know this. Guilet was very close to an American cellist, Greenhouse, who had trained at Juilliard and later with Emanuel Feuermann and Diran Alexanian (Pablo Casals' assistant at the Ecole Normale-Alfred Cortot), and then finally with Casals himself – he was one of his few official students. So Guilet introduced me to Greenhouse. That's how our story began. We started working together solely to record some records: this ephemeral trio was meant to be dissolved as soon as our contract ended. To get ready, we gave a series of concerts over the course of about a month, and then we received an invitation from the Berkshire Festival at Tanglewood, the summer residency of the Boston Philharmonic. Our program consisted of Beethoven (op. 1 n. 3, op. 70 n. 1, the Ghost, and the Archduke op. 97) and was quite a success. That was the 13th of July, 1955. We played six or seven more times, the audience stayed with us, and by the end of the season we realized that we'd given a grand total of 70 chamber music concerts. We gave up the idea of dissolving the ensemble. Robert Casadesus himself brought us to Europe and got us off to a fantastic start: his agent arranged our tour schedule and Casadesus insisted that he hadn't heard anything like us since the Cortot-Thibaud-Casals trio. He was exaggerating, of course, but his enthusiasm was genuine. We owe our career to him. Robert also composed a trio for us. I faithfully visited Gaby, his wife, even years after he died, each time we came to Paris. We were very close, and Guilet had met him as a young man at the Conservatory.

Could you have ever imagined such an illustrious fate for your ensemble?

We had no ambition of the sort. Over the years, the trio was lucky enough to stay together even as the members changed. Isidore Cohen, from the Juilliard Quartet, took up Guilet's place, and then others followed, such as Daniel Hope, and then Antonio Meneses and David Soyer, who sadly passed away recently (1923-2010), from the Guarneri quartet, succeeded Greenhouse. Bernard is still working on his bowing at over 90 years old. For my part, I had the privilege of participating in the Beaux-Arts farewell tour as a founding member and eldest member of the group – me, originally the youngest. We came full circle in August 2008 at Tanglewood, and gave our last concert a year later in Leipzig, after having recorded the complete piano trios of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorák, and Schubert, and having given more than 6,000 concerts in the world over 55 years. I can tell you – I think that's even better than the Rolling Stones.


What's surprising is that you were also teaching at Bloomington over that same time period.

It's thanks to Steuermann that I was tenured. Indiana University was looking for a professor for a semester, the place was lovely, Steuermann recommended me, and I still live there today. Janos Starker, Josef Gingold, György Sebök, Myron Bloom, Giorgio Tozzi, the musicologist Willi Appel, Iannis Xenakis have all held chairs at that school. Leonard Bernstein spent about two months there to finish his opera, A Quiet Place. The facilities there are extraordinary, but I don't need to tell you that. For me, artists are intermediaries in the broadest sense of the term. I don't disassociate performing from teaching. Both are equally important, and indeed doing both gave me an excellent vantage point. I can say, as a performer, as a teacher, and as a jurist in major international competitions, the way pianists play has changed profoundly since my youth. Everything's changed: technique, sound production, fingering, the level of speed and virtuosity at the end of one's studies, demands on memory, attention paid to the diversity and quality of voicing, phrasing, interpretation... The standards are not the same anymore. The apprenticeship system has changed. Today, very young colleagues play all the Chopin Etudes the way someone else would do sit-ups in their living room, without missing a single note, but getting hardly any music out of them at all. I will always remember the little sketch Lazar Berman made of me on the corner of a page, here in Brussels: there was a disemboweled piano, strings and hammers spilling out, with a line of pianists in tuxedos, marked below: "Next!" I could name a number of illustrious, profound musicians who would be eliminated today in the first round of the Van Cliburn or the Queen Elisabeth. The level of execution has gone up considerably over the course of the last 50 years. However, the texts have certainly lost their sacred aura. The late Beethoven Sonatas no longer command respect: they are part of the repertoire that everyone has to play. I often say that the score is a great orator. We don't read with enough attention anymore, I think. Recordings are also partially to blame in this. But if competitions play the role they are supposed to without making a stir, and if they do so based on an established tradition, then they have their role to play: musicians today need to be heard, praised, recognized, encouraged, and supported.

Maestro, I was myself a faculty member at the Indiana University School of Music (1999-2002), and I was in the MAC room the day Dean Gwyn Richards celebrated your entry into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. You are sitting atop an impressive bed of laurels now: you're a member of the Jerusalem Academy of Music, you have three honorary doctorates. In Bloomington, the 16th of December, your birthday, has been officially declared Pressler Day. It's thanks to you that the manuscript of Prokofiev's 9th Sonata was published. I mention all this, which gives you your rightful place in the Pantheon of legendary musicians, not to embarrass you, but rather to ask you how you recently received the tribute paid to you by your native land.

As a genuine, deep gesture of reconciliation. I was awarded the highest German distinction, the first class Deutsche Bundesverdienstkreuz, then in 2009 I was made an honorary citizen of Magdeburg in the name of the Saxony-Anhalt Bundesland by mayor Trümper. I gave a concert at the Opera house, and the following day I participated in a special ceremony: Slopersteine (commemorative stones) were placed into the ground of the city in memory of my loved-ones, in the very spot where they used to live. The stones have their names, professions, dates of birth and death engraved on them. About a hundred people were there – the German interior minister, a brass ensemble – it was very moving. In going back to my hometown, which has changed significantly, I, in a way, came full circle in the long voyage I began many years ago – a voyage that is now part of History.


Just now, Tamás Vásáry and I were listening to you work on Beethoven's 4th Concerto in the next room, with the same rigor, the same attention to detail as if you had never played it before. You are an incorrigible perfectionist. What is the secret to this hyperactivity that you have maintained uninterrupted since your debut?

I'm a born pianist, in the most literal sense. I have devoted my life to the piano, to music: this feeds me each day. Whether or not you're adored by the public, which is only a visible, that is to say "socially acceptable" form of personal accomplishment, it is a rich and healthy life when one can devote oneself exclusively to one's art. I like the creative possibilities that this affords me, I like to study works of music, I like sharing this with the audience, and I never miss the chance to share and play with others. I'm a survivor. I don't want to tempt the devil, but I am infinitely grateful for this. I want to always live and act. When we voluntarily put a stop to the trio's work, I felt a bit like a chicken running around with my head cut off. I thought that my tours would be a bit more spaced out, but I'm busier now than ever before. It's not just because I abhor idleness – if I stay away from the keyboard for more than 48 hours at a time, I can feel myself growing weak, as if I'm neglecting my health. It's a physical need: my fingers quickly start to miss the keyboard. Many of my friends, after long careers in the medicine or finance, chose to retire in Florida or Long Island to tap a ball around on a green or ride their bike on the beach with their dog, but I too have a serious physical activity: I keep working – I practice double notes and arpeggios, I play concerts, I cross time zones, and I spend my days running from gate to gate in all the airports of the world to not miss my plane. It's much better than a treadmill...

back to top