English profiles

Amsterdam, 19 January 2006

Contrary to what one would expect, meeting up with the 81 year old pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio is probably more difficult then setting a date with a pianist of half his age.  His life seems to consist of extensive travelling, concertizing, master classes, recording sessions.... I first asked Mr Pressler for an interview in January 2005. We set a date for March 2005. but unfortunately it couldn’t take place. It proved difficult to find a moment, but when I tried to ask him a last time one year later, he said “This time I will do it”and we found time to speak about his life and career in the Washington hotel in Amsterdam, where his daughter was present to film the entire interview..

Willem Boone (WB): Mr Pressler, thank you so much for your kindness, I have always considered you as one of the most inspirational pianists and was, once again, amazed at your energy last Sunday (15 January), when you played two concerts on the same day in Rotterdam with both Schubert trios, Dvorak’s Dumky trio and Beethoven’s Geistertrio....

Menahem Pressler (MP): You always hope it will be good, but that it will be special, you don’t know. Those concerts were special! That reminds me of a good friend of mine, Julius Kätchen. He invited me to come to a concert where he would play Beethoven’s 3rd concerto. He said: “I will be better than anybody and better than I ever did myself”. I went and it was bad, I went to see him after the concert and asked him: “How could you say you were going to be better than anyone when you were bad?”, he answered: “I was prepared to do the best...”

WB: Are you never exhausted, like after these two Rotterdam concerts?

MP: You gain strength from the music!


WB: Let me ask you a few questions about things that strike me about you. When you walk on stage, you always look so confident and radiant, as if you thoroughly enjoy playing concerts....

MP: It’s a must! We psych ourselves up. I know I am 5 foot 2, but if I walk on stage, I feel 5 foot 3. The confidence is based on experience. I also have great confidence in my two colleagues, who are wonderful. It is a privilege to play at my age, it is no longer a proof. It’s sharing what I have acquired..

WB: Is every concert a joy for you? It’s a very hard job after all....

MP: It’s a pain and a joy! There are moments that come out well and moments that we scurt the borderline. You think life on earth is sometimes like paradise, but on earth, there is no life without humiliation!

WB: Is music like daily bread or like oxygen to you?

MP: Yes!

WB: In “Preludium”, the magazine of the Concertgebouw, you said in an interview that you felt completely upset if you hadn’t played the piano for over two days...

MP: I don’t feel myself if that happens. It’s a strange thing. That’s why I don’t need holidays. Whenever I went on holiday, I always thought after two days: “The holiday has to go past!”.

WB: Do you feel physically unwell?

MP: Yes, as if I didn’t wash... my hands need to play. It feels as if something is missing.

WB: Did you never take a holiday?

MP: Some,but very few. Once, I took one of five days. We played during a festival in Athens. In order to get a cheap ticket, I had to stay for a week. I played the first two days, then I took a boat tour along the Greek islands, it took five days up til Turkey (Istanbul). That was great!

WB: Was that your longest holiday ever?

MP: Yes, it was! (laughs)

WB: I attended some of your masterclasses, where you taught young musicians. One of your remarks to a pianist was that he didn’t look at his fellow musicians while playing. This is something you do a lot. When you look at at violist and the cellist, what exactly do you see?

MP: I am looking at the bow. I see how he sneaks into the note and I learn how to sneak into the note with the player. You use your ears to play together. Everybody has a certain emotion, you see how he relates to his phrasing.

WB: You play with the score, but do you know them by heart after so many years?

MP: More or less, yes.

WB: If you would play without the score, you could look even better at your colleagues while playing...

MP: The score is like a great speaker, it contains points of reference. You see different connections every time. Richter told me that I must play with the score. We do so many programmes, if we would play without the score, we could only do one programme. The ideal has to be in your ears. Music is the language of the ear. It’s true you never get it, but you can get close to it. You think you are flying up to the sky, you go to heaven and you discover that there are more and more different layers. The more you hear, the better you play.

WB: You have such a superb sense of balance!

MP: Balance, that’s the ear!

WB: Are you born with it or can you develop it?

MP: You are born with it, but you don’t know it! I had a hard taskmaster, Daniel Guilet, the first violinist of the Beaux Arts Trio. He was very hard, but he had a superb knowledge and sense of balance. When we started with the trio, the piano was always half open and the pianist had to play as softly as possible. There is a funny story about this, we were rehearsing and Bernard Greenhouse, the first cellist of the trio said: “You are too loud”, we tried it again and he said the same thing. Then the third time I didn’t even play and he looked at me: “You are still too loud!”. ‘But I didn’t play!”I protested and he said: “No, but you look too loud!”. Things have changed, now the stake of the piano is open. My two youngsters only want me to play with the lid fully open, even when we play sonatas.

WB: Stil piano and strings is a tricky combination, isn’t it? The piano could easily drown the string players

MP: It is tricky indeed, but the Beaux Arts Trio convinced people that piano trios could be played as chamber music.

WB: Is chamber music a specialism? Can any pianist do it?

MP: No, it’s not a specialism. In the past, great pianists like Schnabel and Arrau played chamber music. Rubinstein too at the end of his life. It’s true though that you have to cut your ego, like a tree.

WB: Does that mean that you have no ego in the trio?

MP: No, you should have plenty of ego! You should have the feeling: “Whatever you do, I can do better” but whithin a unified conception. That takes time and as they call it in German “Verzicht”...

WB: Speaking of which, what do you think of one of the reviews after your concert at the Concertgebouw of last Monday, where the critic wrote that you were “the leader of the trio, a giant at the keyboard and that Mr Hope was in awe and therefore sounded almost modest”?

MP: A musician is delighted if the critic calls his concert good and he is sad if it is called bad. He is even sadder if he agrees with the critic, because that confirms whithin yourself that it was bad and that even he heard it! But even after a bad review you are not lost....

WB: But what do you think of the comment that Mr Hope was in awe of you?

MP: I don’t think he is in awe! Yes, he is young, but he is great talent. He is an exceedingly fine person and I am thrilled to have him in the trio. If he is in awe, I like it!

WB: Couldn’t it be meant in the sense of “He was intimidated”?

MP: No, he was not intimidated! In which newspaper did you read that review?

WB: It was the NRC Handelsblad.

WB: Was Daniel Guilet the oldest musician when you started playing in the trio?

MP: Yes, he was

WB: And now you are the oldest person. Can that make you a dominant person?

MP: Yes, because I have more ideas. I have been playing and teaching this works for so many years now. I have done it before and at a great heigth. Sometimes, I listen to old recordings and they are pretty good!

WB: Do you have any favourite recordings?

MP: You know, I don’t sit down and listen to them, but sometimes I hear them on the radio. For instance when I hear the Haydn trios, that’s something to be proud of!

WB: I always think of you like an icon. You are like Gerald Moore, who was a special figure too. Does such a comparison make you happy?

MP: Why not? I love him, so if I am compared to him, that’s great!

WB: I can’t think of any other pianist who has done so much for chamber music as you did...

MP: I understand what you mean.

WB: Are there any good trios at the moment?

MP: There are some good trios: Kalichstein/Laredo/Stone and in Holland, there is the Storioni Trio, that I coached. I hope they are growing.. They all play well, the technique is always good, the repertoire is fine.. but it’s all about the creative aspect of playing. When you play, you should feel as if you are composing, that’s what I look for! It also depends on the teachers you worked with: I studied with Egon Petri, Guilet studied with Enescu, Greenhouse with Casals... I didn’t stop feeling creative! People often ask me: “How is it to play the same piece for the 150th time?”It’s always an experience to go through it and find things. It’s always an adventure!

WB: Are there any composers you would have loved to compose a piano trio?

MP: Bartok and Schönberg!

WB: There is a transcription of Schönberg’s “Verklärte Nacht’for piano trio, do you know it?

MP: by Steuermann! Yes, I know it, we intend to play it. It’s no true Schönberg, it’s easily accessible.
Kurtag also wrote a piece for us, which we premiered at the Concertgebouw last year. It was a very short piece and therefore we played it twice, it hardly lasts for more than 2,5 minutes. Last night, we received an award, the price of the Concertgebouw during a gala dinner. We played the Kurtag again. I love it, he promised me to write more pieces for us. He is not only a great composer, we can play Beethoven for him and learn a lot. He has a very strong inside.

WB: Can you ask him questions about his intentions?

MP: Of course you can. It’s like Alexandra du Bois, a young American composer by whom we played a composition two days ago, you can ask her: “What do you mean?”

WB: Can these composers answer your questions? Or did they write their works subconciously?

MP: They can answer our questions more or less. Rorem did, Müller Wieland did... these are composers who are thinkers! If they don’t know, I won’t have questions, they give up their birth rights... and I do what I think is right...

WB: You mentioned Rorem, he wrote some beautiful music!

MP: He is a very important American composer. For the 100th season of Carnegie Hall, I played a piece of his for piano and violin. I was asked which composer I would like to write for us and I said Rorem..

WB: Do you never long to play highly virtuosic music?

MP: I did for many years! But then piano trios took over and they became main stay...I am still playing, more than I like sometimes...and I am still concerned with piano litterature.

WB: Are you still studying solo repertoire?

MP: Yes, I am still doing that, but less. There are time constraints....

WB: When you play trios by Rachmaninov or Tschaikofsky with very elaborate piano parts, do you approach these works as piano concertos?

MP: No, when I play trios, I play them like trios. My two friends wanted to play the Rachmaninov, they loved it, not because the piano part was pre-eminent

WB: You mentioned Richter before. In his note books, that have been published, he was unusually positive about your playing. Does that mean anything to you when a great colleague pays you a tribute?

MP: It was the most important compliment. Of course it is! He was one of the greatest pianists. We played four times during his festival in Moscow at the Pushkin Museum. He was a great icon in my life! His diaries were not intended to be published. Some of my friends told me: “Did you read it? You should, it is very positive!”.
Once we played in Menton, he played in Italy, near the French border after our concert. I went and spoke to him afterwards. He was not very happy about the way he played. He told me he would love to go to France, but he had no passport. You know, it was before 11 September, they didn’t check very carefully at the border, so I said: “Why don’t you come with us?”. He was lying in our car and we took him to France... I asked him whether he knew the Schumann Trios, he said no. He came to our concert the next day, when we did one of the Schumann Trios. Then he invited us to his festival near Tours and also to Moscow.

WB: Did you also think that he was incredibly hard on himself?

MP: Enormously! His talent was so big, he reached out further than most of us. His repertoire was bigger than any other pianists, he played more than Michelangeli or Pollini. Only that Hungarian pianist has a large repertoire nowadays, I can’t think of his name.

WB: Jeno Jando?

MP: No...

WB: Do you mean Andras Schiff?

MP: Yes, exactly!

WB: Really? He leaves out a lot of things; he doesn’t play any Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, nor contemporary music!

MP: He does the complete Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and a lot of other things, like Janacek..

WB: A last question, do you remember your first concert in Holland?

MP: Yes, that was a recital in the Hague, it was during my honeymoon! I had a good success, but it had no great echo. I was invited to come back though. The first concert with the trio was in the late 50’s. We couldn’t get used to this Dutch attitude of getting up after the first piece! We were overwhelmed and thought: “O , how should we get on with the second and the third composition?”, but now we are used to it! Do you know that last night we played our 50th performance at the Concertgebouw?

WB: You played an enormous amount of concerts with the trio!

MP: As you can see!