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Pianist Menahem Pressler at age 94: Fragile, fallible, but still a credit to his legacy?

Pianist Menahem Presller, still playing at age 94

Human beings are living longer – and so are performing artists. The question of when they retire gracefully isn’t going away, and, if anything, will only require more finesse as musical legends have increasingly few reasons to retire.

That question inevitably arose as pianist Menahem Pressler, the multi-decade soul of the Beaux Arts Trio, was helped onto the Kimmel Center stage on Feb. 9 for a Philadelphia Orchestra return in Mozart’s Piano Concerto K. 488, some 70 years after his debut. He’s 94 and has continued to play well in recent years, to judge from recordings that he has continued to make – at least the ones made prior to his 2015 heart surgery. His crystalline sonority – so present yet too aristocratic to be aggressive – has been an ongoing part of my musical life since the 1970s.

In Philadelphia, he was conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who interviewed the engaging, unquestionably present Pressler onstage prior to his performances. But whether his fingers still represent his musical intelligence, which has always redefined how charismatic middle-of-the-road music-making can be, was an ongoing question.

Listeners and critics have similarly questioned conductors such as James Levine (whose stamina flagged over those long Wagner operas) and the late Kurt Masur (who fell off the stage during one late-in-life concert). But that’s a profession that has a certain amount of padding: the job is part telepathy. The standard example is Otto Klemperer, who was so infirm that he had nothing close to a clear beat (he had suffered a brain tumor and set himself on fire by smoking in bed) but still conducted Beethoven performances with rare psychological depth. But pianists and violinists create the sound rather than conjuring it from others.

Some of my most memorable concerts have been those by pianists only weeks before their respective deaths, such as Tatiana  Nikolayeva (1924-1993) and especially Sergio Fiorentino (1927-1998), whose glistening tone I can still hear in my mind’s ear. Senior artist care less about how their musical viewpoint is received and give performances with greater personality, often making grand artistic statements that were beyond the grasp of their younger selves.

Yet lots of Philadelphia listeners were disappointed when, in 2008, André Previn, then 78, gave a less-than-note-perfect chamber music recital with violinist Joan Kwuon. Yet I’ve never been more engrossed by his pianism, which had its usual elegant, classical outlines but spoke with more precise inference than I’ve ever heard from him.

Then there are times when senior pianists apparently are sick of practicing and give fallible performances without much communicative imperative. Radu Lupu, then a relative youngster at age 71, quite nearly disgraced himself in May of last year with a Mozart Piano Concerto No. 24 performance that had very little to offer.

It’s hard to know what the story was with Austrian pianist Ingrid Haebler when I heard her in Amsterdam in 2008, aged 81, playing a Mozart piano concerto at what seemed like almost half-tempo, elongating the music to the point where it barely made sense whether she hit the notes or not.

Among violinists, Nathan Milstein played extremely well right up to the end. But while Itzhak Perlman’s shoulder surgery seemed to give his playing a new lease, he seems not to be very engaged by his repertoire: the notes are there, but he doesn’t make you care about them.

Few conditions are tricker to navigate than age. There are days when you’re nearly everything you ever were; other days, you can barely function at all. And you never know which day will be which.

That, apparently, was why Maria Callas humiliated herself with a farewell tour. According to conductor/pianist Jeffrey Tate, who worked with her in her later years, her voice still worked, but not every day. And on good days, her nerves got the best of her.

Yet there’s an elusive hope in never knowing what’s going to happen when you get out there. In later years, Karl Böhm talked about going out to conduct Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio feeling tired and sick, but once the music started, he felt like he could rip out trees by their roots.

Back to Pressler: The tone was still there, but struggled to get out of the piano with the 94-year-old pianist’s diminishing resources. His tempo tended to wind down, while Gražinytė-Tyla gently brought him back up to a reasonable speed. Missed notes were there but not of great consequence. The interpretive concept, no doubt strong and clear in his mind, manifested only intermittently.

But there was one invaluable element of the performance that you aren’t likely to hear in under-80 pianists: the breadth of meaning that arises simply when one note follows another, the distance between notes becoming a deeper experience. Yo-Yo Ma talks about how his many far-afield projects make it possible to go back to his basic repertoire finding more meaning as to why one note follows another. Time and again in Pressler’s performance, I was mentally catching my breath as the doors to possible meaning opened for me. One metaphor might be that of a pendulum that would stop for a nanosecond at each extreme, with all sorts of poetry rushing in to fill the void.

I’m glad I was there, but was the concert was a credit to Pressler’s legacy? One less-welcome element was his fragility: you feared the performance might break down and stop. When the audience’s protective instincts are employed on that level – intentionally or not – the message of the music is easily lost. The fact that he played two encores (Chopin and Debussy) suggested he is making the most of what seems like borrowed time. If this is the final memory he leaves in Philadelphia, it’s a predominately good one. The love was still there – his for the music and the audience for him. But I hope he doesn’t press his luck again.

 

Comments

  1. Alison Ames says:

    It’s wonderful that Menahem Pressler is still active at 94 — mentally, physically and musically! Instrumentalists usually CAN continue to perform at an advanced age, when singers’ voices, or their control of them, have usually suffered the problems of decreased pitch- and/or breath control.

    Congratulations and salutations to Maestro Pressler, and long may he wave!

  2. Luigi Nonono says:

    This article is a perfect example of how unnecessary, inappropriate, and useless critics are. Who are you to say if someone should retire or not? Only the audience or presenter does, apart from the performer. Your attitude of entitlement is disgusting. For all you know, Pressler could be destitute. This was just an egregious piece.

    • “Who are you to say if someone should retire or not? Only the audience or presenter does, apart from the performer.”

      Critics are part of the audience. And they obviously don’t get the final say, any more than any other audience member does.

    • Actually, this kind of reply is exactly why critics are needed, as much as people love to make fun of critics, especially when they do get it wrong. That ignores the many times that critics get it right. The critic’s job is to be a professional listener, in the case of music, and evaluator of art in general, bringing his/her background and understanding of the art form into play. The critic is supposed to stand apart from PR-agents, overly worshipful fans, and the arts organizations themselves to speak their informed opinions from an outsider perspective. Without critics to speak sometimes unpleasant truths that performers and artists are not infallible beings, you wind up with a world where the Levines, Dutoits, and Richard Buckleys think that they are above normal standards of conduct or judgment, because they are ‘the artists’, and thus are not to be questioned.

      In the particular case of Menahem Pressler, I had the fortune to hear him in recital almost 20 years ago, when he was in his 70’s, and he was wonderful. However, having heard his recent Brahms chamber CD of the op. 34, which he recorded at age 91, it was very obvious that he was simply trying to play all the notes, in the correct order, but not always with a continuous sense of pulse and the inner line. DPS’ comments jibe with this line of thinking, and the Inquirer review from Peter Dobrin said also, perhaps more diplomatically, that Pressler was not at his very best..

      DPS’ thesis also raises the general question of when the older generation needs to step aside, to make way for the younger generations to keep the professions and traditions going. In science research, with mandatory retirement now essentially abolished, a lot of older science professors still keep going with their labs. This blocks the way for younger talent to start their own labs and make their marks. Back in music, I’ve seen and read about multiple instances over the years of long-standing orchestra musicians who were great in their prime, but stayed too long, to the detriment of the orchestra. (Dale Clevenger and the Chicago Symphony comes to mind, as the horn section’s sound improved immeasurably after he finally retired, and Daniel Gingrich took over as acting principal horn.) In the local orchestra here, one back section horn with decades of experience and tenure honestly needs to retire, and should have retired years ago. But that player won’t, because of what I see as a personally vindictive goal to stay in the orchestra longer than the local critic keeps reviewing. Given the critic’s health issues of late, the player may actually win that ‘race’.

  3. Phillip Bush says:

    Pianists are luckier than most in that age doesn’t affect tone in the same way that it does with the voice or with string instruments (e.g., shaky bow arm). Plus playing the piano may be such an aerobic-exercise activity that it often keeps pianists in good physical shape well into their 90s. Half of me feels that these great artists have earned the right to keep playing if they want to, while the other half of me feels that every one of these concerts is a solo opportunity that has been instead denied to a less-often-heard gifted mid-career (or still younger) artist. Perhaps the answer for some of these artists is the more forgiving arena of the recording studio, where they can still convey their perspective (honed over a lifetime) on certain works of the repertoire. But all of us who play will reach that point where we find it very difficult and painful to admit that we may have heard the applause of a live audience for the last time. Your essay here expresses the conflicting emotions one can feel in these situations with great sensitivity. One thing is for sure: though I haven’t always loved everything about Pressler’s playing all the time, what this man has contributed to our musical life is staggering beyond belief. What a career. And in the end (referencing what you said about the space between the notes), maybe it’s all worth it—even hearing an artist like this struggle for much of the piece—if there is that one moment, a moment like no other one has ever heard. And from somebody of Pressler’s caliber, it could happen, at any time—maybe that makes it all worth it.

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  1. […] Pianist Menahem Pressler at age 94: Fragile, fallible but still a credit to his legacy? Pianist Menahem Presller, still playing at age 94 Human beings are living longer – and so are performing artists. The question of when do they retire gracefully isn’t going away, and if anything, will only … read more AJBlog: Condemned to MusicPublished 2018-02-15 […]

  2. […] Pianist Menahem Pressler at age 94: Fragile, fallible but still a credit to his legacy? Pianist Menahem Presller, still playing at age 94 Human beings are living longer – and so are performing artists. The question of when do they retire gracefully isn’t going away, and if anything, will only … read more AJBlog: Condemned to MusicPublished 2018-02-15 […]

  3. […] Pianist Menahem Pressler at age 94: Fragile, fallible but still a credit to his legacy? Pianist Menahem Presller, still playing at age 94 Human beings are living longer – and so are performing artists. The question of when do they retire gracefully isn’t going away, and if anything, will only … read more AJBlog: Condemned to MusicPublished 2018-02-15 […]

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