Menahem Pressler, the Great Pianist Israeli Has Forgotten About

Pressler is celebrating his 90th birthday by giving solo performances with some of the world’s greatest orchestras.

In Tel Aviv of the 1940s, where he lived as a teenager on Hanevi’im Street, he was called both Menahem and Max. Since his immigration to the United States (he has lived in Bloomington, Indiana, and taught piano at Indiana University since 1955), his name has been only Menahem. The pianist Menahem Pressler retains close ties to Israel, where he visits and gives master classes. His sister lives in Tel Aviv, and his wife, Sara, was born and raised in Petah Tikva (they were married by Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, the father of President Chaim Herzog and grandfather of MK Isaac Herzog, leader of the Labor Party).

Tel Avivans of a certain age will recall the men’s clothing store of Menahem’s father on Ben Yehuda Street. Yet another Israeli connection lies in the names he and his wife chose for their two children: Amihai and Edna. Pressler immigrated to Palestine with his parents and his brother and sister in 1939. “That is how my life was saved,” he says.

A short transcontinental telephone conversation with the veteran pianist – his tone of voice vibrant, his Hebrew fluent – begins with a cornucopia of facts. Pressler is eager to tell me, almost before he is asked, about his concerts in this period as a soloist with leading orchestras.

The short version: five concerts with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, then with the Mariinsky Orchestra under Valery Gergiev in St. Petersburg, followed by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Semyon Bychkov, and later with the Orchestre de Paris.

Pressler’s first major success came in 1946, when he was awarded first prize at the Debussy International Piano Competition held in San Francisco. One of the judges was the French composer Darius Milhaud. He then embarked on a career as a soloist in America, but in 1955 he became a founding member – with the violinist Daniel Guilet and the cellist Bernard Greenhouse – of the acclaimed Beaux Arts Trio, which was active for more than half a century, until 2008. Pressler became a symbol of chamber music artistry, and his marvelous performances with his colleagues are perpetuated on any number of records and CDs.

Pressler, by the way, was the permanent fixture of the group, as the violin and cello members changed occasionally. There were four violinists over the trio’s 53-year career, including a Turkish-Armenian-American artist named Ida Kavafian, from 1992 to 1998.

Pressler has lived in Bloomington for nearly 60 years, where he continues to teach – his energy unabated – on the piano faculty of Indiana University’s School of Music. Many of his students have gone on to enjoy successful careers and won international prizes. Pressler himself was awarded honorary citizenship of his native city, Magdeburg, in eastern Germany. As early as 1953, Haaretz correspondent Aryeh Gelblum wondered why the Israel Philharmonic did not invite Pressler to perform with it. Sixty years later, the question is still relevant.

He is used to the unavoidable question about the secret of his amazing fitness, but has no useful tips. “I don’t do anything special in regard to fitness, other than take pills (for blood pressure, among others), though I eat less bread – and I love bread – and less sugar,” he says. “Music fills my soul. I practice at least four hours a day, and that gives me the will to live and the reason to live. To be an old person in front of the television, waiting for appointments with the doctor – that is not a life I would wish to prolong.

“I drive to the university for classes myself. My driving license was recently renewed, and I don’t need glasses. ‘They have forgotten you in heaven,’ my doctor told me. But in Israel I really was forgotten. I am good enough for the best orchestras in the world, but not for the… [he doesn’t utter the explicit word “Philharmonic”]. No, I don’t know [why].”

Exercises for the soul

His life now compared to the past? “I have more feelings, more thoughts,” he replies. “In an interview with Der Spiegel, I was asked what a person of biblical age feels like. I said that in concerts I am no more than 50, in classes with my students no more than 40, but when I climb stairs it’s something else. There are works, such as ‘Scarbo’ [from Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit”], that I no longer play, but you also need perfect technique for the concerti of Beethoven, which I do perform.

“How many Mozart concerti do I have ready to perform at short notice? At least 15. I have them in my hands, but I need a week of preparation – not technical, but spiritual. Exercises are needed for the soul, too, otherwise one plays ordinarily, without vitality. Naturally, I enjoy applause – like everyone – but one does not live for that. An artist has to feel that he is drawing the listeners closer to something bigger than them.”

After decades in the United States, Menahem Pressler declares, in his light German accent, “I am an Israeli in heart, body and mind. I will be happy to come to Tel Aviv to eat falafel. When I get close to Israel, still on the plane, as soon as the shoreline comes into view, my heart starts to pound.”

The Israeli pianists Asaf Zohar and Ron Regev, both senior teachers of the instrument, are closely acquainted with Pressler and his teaching methods. “In the 1980s and early ’90s, Pressler taught master classes at the Mishkenot Sha’anamim Music Center in Jerusalem, and did so on a completely voluntary basis,” Zohar notes. He also recalls that Israeli musicians, among them he himself and Michal Tal, went to Indiana to study under Pressler.

Pressler, he notes, also submitted pupils for the Rubinstein Piano Competition in Tel Aviv, notably the Japanese pianist Etsuko Terada, who won third prize in 1977, and the Canadian Angela Cheng, who claimed second prize in 1986. (Cheng recently appeared with the Israel Chamber Orchestra.)

“Pressler’s captivating, radiant and magnetic personality, together with authority based on decades of instruction and teaching worldwide, place him in the very top ranks of piano teachers in the world,” Zohar adds. “His students hold senior positions in dozens of universities in the United States and elsewhere, and appear as soloists and in chamber groups.”

Ron Regev took a summer course with Pressler at the Ravinia Festival, outside Chicago, in 2005 and 2006 (now Regev himself teaches there). Of Pressler’s personality as a teacher, Regev says, “He is a musician with exceptionally acute senses. He knows how to get the best out of every pupil and insists on doing just that. Does he tend to extra-musical descriptions in shaping interpretations? That is part of his method, but he invokes those descriptions only if he feels they are appropriate for extracting the maximum from a particular pupil. The fact is, his pupils sound very different from one another.”

Given that Pressler was the one permanent member of the Beaux Arts Trio, are there striking differences in the trio’s recordings?

Regev: “The Beaux Arts Trio is Pressler, and Pressler is the Beaux Arts Trio. His presence was so dominant and meaningful that no differences of interpretation are discernible between the trio’s various generations.”

Courtesy of Indiana University