Home Entertainment Menahem Pressler, pianist and Beaux Arts Trio founder, dies at 99

Menahem Pressler, pianist and Beaux Arts Trio founder, dies at 99


Menahem Pressler, a German-born American pianist who was a co-founder of the Beaux Arts Trio in 1955 and remained with the acclaimed ensemble until it broke up more than a half-century later, died May 6 in London. He was 99, and he had continued playing concertos and solo recitals through recent years.

Indiana University, where he spent much of his life as a music professor, confirmed the death in a statement. No other details were given.

The Beaux Arts Trio was formed at the invitation of violinist Daniel Guilet, who had been the concertmaster of Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony from 1951 to 1954. Bernard Greenhouse, a much-admired cellist who had been one of the only long-term students of Pablo Casals, had become friends with Mr. Pressler and suggested him to round out the group.

It was an inspired decision, as the Beaux Arts Trio would go on to play more than 4,000 concerts throughout the world while recording virtually all the standard trio repertory.

The teamwork was not always easy. “Guilet was a taskmaster, a terrible taskmaster,” Mr. Pressler told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2008. “Every second word in the rehearsal was an insult. I didn’t feel it as much as Greenhouse did. He reacted violently. But during the performance, the chemistry and the inspiration was something we were grateful for and happy about.”

The group played its debut at Tanglewood in 1955 and had its American farewell in the same place in August 2008 before presenting its final concert in Lucerne the following month. By then, the Beaux Arts Trio had included five different violinists and three cellists.

Throughout those 53 years. Mr. Pressler was the only constant — and he knew his worth. “The pianist in a trio is a first among equals,” he told the New York Times in 1987. “He is the heartbeat of the trio; that’s how the scores are written.”

Many distinguished composers over the centuries have written piano trios but the form remains a challenge for composers and players, as the piano is a much more sonorous instrument than any other instrument with which it may be teamed; indeed, it may often be heard over a full orchestra. It was therefore left to Mr. Pressler to play more softly than is usual for a concert pianist, while retaining artistic authority.

When the Beaus Arts Trio performed at New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival in 1990, critic Allan Kozinn wrote in the Times that Mr. Pressler’s “crystalline, songful playing was the center of gravity.”

Menahem Pressler was born in Magdeburg, Germany, on Dec. 16, 1923, to parents who owned a clothing store. They fled Germany after the state-directed, antisemitic Kristallnacht attacks in November 1938 destroyed Jewish homes, businesses and places of worship.

The 14-year-old Mr. Pressler, his parents and his siblings arrived in the British Mandate for Palestine.His father opened a grocery in addition to a clothing store near their home in Tel Aviv, with their son focusing on his already prodigious interest in music. Many members of his extended family who remained in Europe perished in concentration camps.

According to Mr. Pressler, he was a “psychological wreck” after the odyssey to Palestine and, one day, he fainted during a piano lesson while he was playing Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Op. 110.

“I’m sure it was my emotional reaction to this magnificent work which summed up what I felt, everything that had happened,” he told the Guardian in 2008. “It has idealism, it has hedonism, it has regret, it has something that builds like a fugue. And at the very end, something that is very rare in Beethoven’s last sonatas — it is triumphant, it says, ‘Yes, my life is worth living,’ and that’s what I feel.”

From then on, Mr. Pressler began a regimen of practicing several hours a day, one which he maintained for the rest of his life. There were years when he would go to bed for a while early in the evening, wake up, practice for three hours and then continue his sleep.

“I love practice, because that is where the search for music takes place,” he told the New York Times in 1996. “The deep moments of musical epiphany are almost always in the practice.”

Mr. Pressler, whose chief tutor in Palestine had been the eminent music educator Leo Kestenberg, moved to the United States in 1946. That year, he won the Debussy international piano competition in San Francisco, which earned him $1,000 in prize money and led to a sponsored debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the leadership of conductor Eugene Ormandy.

A Carnegie Hall debut followed in December 1947, with Times music critic Olin Downes praising Mr. Pressler’s interpretation of the Schumann Piano Concerto in A Minor Op. 54.

“He is one of the few of the young pianists who consider his instrument the agent of glamorous song and not merely a contraption of wires and keys,” Downes wrote. “This, indeed, was the playing of a free artist, secure in his birthright.”

Mr. Pressler was then engaged for a concert tour that took him throughout much of America. He settled into a job at Indiana University and stayed with the institution as it grew to be one of the most respected conservatories in the country. He also taught master classes throughout the world, influencing thousands of students.

Mr. Pressler was married to Sara Scherchen, one of his Israeli students, from 1949 until her death in 2014. Survivors include his companion and longtime manager, Annabelle Whitestone; two children from his marriage, Ami Pressler and Edna Pressler.

After the Beaux Arts Trio broke up, Mr. Pressler returned to solo performance. At 90, he played the Berlin Philharmonic’s New Year’s Eve celebration in a televised concert under the direction of Simon Rattle. A week later, he was in Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where he underwent surgery to remove an aortic aneurysm. Mr. Pressler rested for several weeks and then resumed his activities.

Most of the Beaux Arts Trio’s recordings were made for the Philips label, and the company issued a 60-CD set in 2015 to honor the group on the 60th anniversary of its founding.

He never considered retiring. “When I play, I don’t feel older than 50,” he told the Times of Israel in 2016. “When I teach, I don’t feel older than 40.”

Then he laughed. “When I walk up the stairs, it’s another story!”

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