how to work hard, which is very different in a
chamber setting. It’s not just playing the notes,
or even being sensitive and playing together;
you have to learn how to build a group, which
is like building a marriage.
“Guilet used to say that he would rather
take someone for his quartet who plays a little
less well than another, provided that person
is devoted to what chamber music really is.
Much of the time you underline someone
else’s playing — and give them the greatest
possibility to speak at their very best.
“There are stages to a group’s development.
The first stage is one in which you all like
each other and everything sounds wonderful.
It’s just like a honeymoon — you approve of
everything the other person does, and you
get approval in return. Then comes daily life.
Some of the things that attracted you to the
other’s playing start to seem like mannerisms.
Say the other person rushes a bit. You like it
in the beginning, because somehow it seemed
to have momentum. Then, you begin to feel,
‘ That’s too much, it breaks the form.’ All of a
sudden the balance seems wrong.
“Now, all of that [may be true], or it might
be imagined. But this makes no difference. It
must be addressed, while keeping respect for
In the end, he says, it is all worth it. “I hear
young pianists play from one beautiful place
in a piece to the next beautiful place — but the
conception of the whole work is missing. The
chamber experience shows you how to build a
bridge between those places.”
Perhaps that is why The New York Times
described his playing as encompassing “a
different kind of technique. In it, variations of
tone and color became precise metaphors for
the breathing patterns of a given phrase, inner
dissonances and their resolutions sounded
clearly but with no intrusion; feeling was
transferred directly into sound.”
Of course, beauty occupies an important
place on his list of musical priorities. “The
pianist who has a beautiful sound is like a good-
looking person. You immediately feel attracted.
For many works it’s essential— a reason for
being. Someone playing Chopin with an ugly
sound will have a very hard time making the
form stand out, because in the end what really
counts is the beauty that the composer put into
the music. Even Beethoven, whose message is
so strong it can bear a hard edge, put indica-
tions in his music such as ‘tender.’”
Yet, in Pressler’s view, chamber music
cultivates broader and deeper aspects of
music-making. In a chamber music perfor-
mance, he says, there is “no soloist playing fast
octaves and loud chords. You just have the
music. The greatest moments are when you
forget the player and you hear the work in its
glory. The composers are our gods — we are
preaching their bibles. For a performer every
hall becomes a temple.”
It explains why he still loves to prac-
tice — it’s a way of communing with music’s
deities. And in the Book of Menahem, each
one has a different lesson to impart: Chopin?
“The piano opens up its arms for Chopin — he
makes it sing. But when you play Mozart, it
is your insides that open up.” Mozart? “Of
course we have Bach, Haydn, Beethoven,
Schumann. But without Mozart we couldn’t
fly. Playing him, you feel you are closer to
heaven — there is a transparency and a
delicacy and an immediacy in his music.”
Beethoven? “In Beethoven we have
tremendous philosophical insights, especially
in his last works. Don’t forget that this man
was deaf. He writes the innermost music. His
powers of persuasion and expression are
unique.” Schubert? “No one else could dance
or change harmonies like that. Nobody’s
tears were as moving as Schubert’s.” Debussy?
“Debussy’s colors are like flowers that don’t
And then there are all those new orchestral
have the usual hues. It’s as if he brought
together seeds from all over to produce a
garden we’ve never experienced before.”
What will he do next? No doubt there will
be more recordings (he released two solo-
piano albums this fall — one of Beethoven,
Chopin and Schubert (BIS) and Tales from
Vienna, chosen by Radio France as record
of the year, comprising works by Beethoven,
Mozart and Schubert (La Dolce Volta), and
more students to be mentored.
dates. “If you only knock long enough and loud
enough at the gate, you are sure to wake up
somebody,” said Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
It seems that after all these years, Menahem
Pressler has managed to stir new segments of
the music world from their slumbers.
In addition to over fifty recordings with
the Beaux Arts Trio, Menahem Pressler
has produced more than thirty solo
records, the most recent of which were just
issued. Here are five selections that capture
him in different repertoire and contexts.
Sonata, Op. 110;
Piano Concertos KV
453 (G Major) and
KV 491 (C minor)
Complete Piano Trios;
Piano Quartet, Op. 47;
Piano Quintet, Op. 44
Beaux Arts Trio
Piano Quintet, Op. 81;
Music by Baker,
Beaux Arts Trio
Through the years. The Beaux Arts Trio, which performed from 1955–2008, went through
a half dozen personnel changes at viola and violin, all of which were grounded by pianist
Menahem Pressler. The founding trio (left): Daniel Guilet, violin; Pressler; Bernard Greenhouse,
cello. The final lineup (right): Antonio Meneses, cello; Pressler; Daniel Hope, violin.