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A Tribute to Menahem Pressler

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Aaron Cain: Menahem Pressler. Would have turned 100 years old this weekend. He passed away, peacefully, in London, on May 6th of this year. His passing leaves a void in the music world, but his artistic legacy is so vast that it more than refills that void. Pressler was a founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio, an award-winning performer and chamber musician, and a faculty member at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music. In this next hour, we’re offering a tribute to Menahem Pressler; his life and his music. We’ll share moments from interviews, from our archives here at WFIU, in which Pressler speaks about his love for the piano, for teaching, and for performing. We'll also be sharing some of Pressler's music; most of it from live performances that come to us from the archives of the Jacobs School. Menachem was a child prodigy. A few years ago, he told WFIU’s News Bureau Chief Sara Wittmeyer that he wasn't exactly sure when he first started playing piano, but that it was around age 5 or 6. 

Menahem Pressler: My parents didn't know. Yes, they knew that I wanted to study. But my father would always say to me when they came home after the whole day of work, “didn't you have enough with practicing now?” I never had enough. And I still don't have enough. All my life I had a desire to make music. 

Aaron Cain: In 1939, Pressler fled Nazi Germany and immigrated to Israel with his family. His grandparents, aunts, and uncles were all killed in Auschwitz. 

Menahem Pressler: I had to run away from my home in Germany. And what we only know after the fact is we left Germany three weeks before Germany went into the war. And we left. We went to Italy, supposedly on vacation, and they let us through. That is pure luck. And the German border guards, yes? Then we went from Italy to Israel—to Palestine at that time. That boat—this was one week before Italy went into the war—the boat never returned to Italy because it was confiscated in the war. And there I am, a young pianist, arriving in Israel, and, immediately, the wonderful part is I found a wonderful teacher. But what happened to me was every time the mealtime came, I couldn't eat. My father thought no, that's the allures of a young pianist who thinks he's special. No, it wasn't. I was sick, mentally, but we didn't—my father didn't know, and I didn't know. But I practiced, I made—I played, and actually once I even fainted at the studio of my teacher, playing a piece. Because I was weak, but that music would have healed me, which I know in retrospect. That I didn't know. So if you ask what means music to me? Everything. It's not a profession. When you hear a great pianist, truly a great pianist, you know it's a calling. It's not only that his fingers can do things that he can—someone else cannot do. No, that's not everything. That's only part of it. But he is giving life to that. And I always used to say: we have our religion. Which is music. Our gods are Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin. And our temples are the halls where we perform. So we are actually priests. 

Aaron Cain: He came to the United States in 1946, he said, to find out how good he was. At the NBC International Piano competition in San Francisco, he won first prize and international attention. 

Menahem Pressler: I went to a competition to San Francisco. Not to win. That was not even in my thought. I went to find out: how do we stack up? How do I stack up among young pianists of today? When I won, of course, the elation, I would imagine, is the same at any time, at any place, at any competition. 

Aaron Cain: After his success at the Debussy Competition in 1946, Pressler's career took off. He auditioned for Eugene Ormandy and was then contracted to make his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra. 

Menahem Pressler: It was something unbelievable. Unbelievable. Right out of a storybook. And the story book went further. And during this first or second year, I played with Stokowski and the New York Philharmonic, and Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. I mean, it really…I lived my dream at that time. 

Aaron Cain: Even with a number of high-profile solo performances under his belt, the young Pressler was moved by a desire to continue learning. So, in 1955, he approached his management about the possibility of performing chamber music. He was granted permission and joined up with cellist Bernard Greenhouse and violinist Daniel Guilet.

Menahem Pressler: The trio itself seemed to have been a life of its own. In each rehearsal that was really miraculous. I found myself being a member of the group, not just that we play well together, but that, in front of my eyes,  a group was born that had a face, that had eyes, that had a heart, that breathes breath together. All of a sudden, it was a child called Beaux Arts. I must say that I'm very grateful to this first time, because as a learning experience it was very, very, very special. 

Aaron Cain: 1955 was also a pivotal  year for Menachem Pressler, the teacher. One of his colleagues. William Marsalis dared him to join the faculty of the renowned Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. 

Menahem Pressler: When the school needed another teacher, he and Sidney Foster went in to Dean Bain at the time. And said, “we suggest that you invite Menahem Pressler.” And he called me, and he called a second time. And then the two of them called me. And I came for one semester. 

Aaron Cain: Pressler continued touring even as he was settling into life as a professor. His dual careers as performer and teacher had a symbiotic relationship. Each fed off the other, each strengthened the other, each inspired the other. And, of course, Pressler was always inspired by the expressive power of his chosen instrument: the piano. Let’s hear him now, performing on his chosen instrument. This is from a concert at the School of Music, this was from a faculty recital, during the school’s 42nd season, where Menachem Pressler performed this Toccata, from Le tombeau de Couperin, by Maurice Ravel.

Aaron Cain: A recording made in 1959, from the 42nd season Faculty recital at the School of Music at Indiana University. That was Menahem Pressler performing the toccata from Le tombeau de Couperin, by Maurice Ravel. Let's hear music performed by the Beaux Arts Trio now; that first permutation of the ensemble with Menahem Pressler joined by cellist Bernard Greenhouse and violinist Daniel Guilet. Here they are playing the third movement, the Allegro, from the piano trio in C Major, by Mozart.

Aaron Cain: Violinist Daniel Guilet, cellist Bernard Greenhouse and pianist Menachem Pressler. The Beaux Arts Trio. That was the third movement, the Allegro, from the piano trio in C Major, by Mozart. A recording they made in 1967. The Beaux Arts Trio recorded nearly all the piano trio repertory, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, Brahms, Devorak, Saint-Saens, and others. 

Menahem Pressler: I remember when we started out to play in the first community concerts, we had to play solo groups with it.  Because, after all, you had to give candy with the medicine. As they always used to say, “chamber music may be good for you, but you don't have to like it.” And once they heard it, they understood it was not just good for you. But they started to like it, and then they started to love it. In one part, that elicits, very often, the comments of admiration and pleasure is that they feel how a group of people can converse in music, can make themselves understood by a wink of an eye, by a motion of the shoulder,  by a touch of the instrument, by the way the instrument is being touched. The others understand, follow, or you follow, therefore, a lead of someone else that way. Now that is— that happens only actually between husband and wife after many years. So it does only happen in chamber music, really, after quite a few years. 

Aaron Cain: The Beaux Arts trio went through several string players, but Menachem was the anchor, a constant leader in the group.

Menahem Pressler: It was wonderful to have started with two experienced and wonderful artists like Mr. Guilet and Bernie Greenhouse. And,  afterwards, Isidor Cohen, who joined the trio. Then Peter Wiley took the place of Greenhouse. And, in the end, Ida Kavafian is the violinist instead of Izzy Cohen. And to keep them a group—be with the group that keeps a standard. A standard which you have learned to achieve, and which you have learned to appreciate. To maintain in a new configuration, with different people, with different talents, with different assets. To keep it that way, that is a privilege. And I am very well cognizant that that is a privilege; the privilege of being able to do it, the privilege of being able to play, and the privilege of being asked to play. 

Aaron Cain: In addition to working with many young pianists, certainly another joy of being on the faculty at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music was cultivating musical relationships with his colleagues. So now let's hear Menachem Pressler, performing with one of those colleagues, another legendary musician who taught at the Jacobs school: cellist Janos Starker. Here are the two of them, recorded live in concert in 1972; a benefit concert for the Music Student’s Emergency Scholarship Fund. This is the first  movement of the Sonata in a minor, by Edvard Grieg.

Aaron Cain: Menachem Pressler with cellist Janos Starker. That was the 1st movement, Allegro agitato, from the Sonata in a minor, Opus 36, by Edvard Grieg, recorded live in concert at the Jacobs School in 1972. at a Benefit concert for the Music Student’s Emergency Scholarship Fund. Let’s hear music brought to life through another collaboration between Pressler and some of his colleagues at the Jacobs School. This time, with the renowned Pacifica Quartet, the school’s quartet-in-residence. We’ll hear the Pacifica Quartet, joined by Menahem Pressler, for the second movement of the Piano Quintet in f minor, by Johannes Brahms. 

Aaron Cain: Part of the Piano Quintet in f minor, by Johannes Brahms, that was the second movement, there, the Andante, un poco Adagio. And we heard pianist Menahem Pressler joining members of the Pacifica Quartet, the quartet-in-residence at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music for the past decade. That was from a live concert recording, at the Jacobs School, in 2014. Let’s go back in time a few years before that, now, to hear more music performed by Pressler as part of the Beaux Arts Trio. When this recording was made, Daniel Hope was the violinist of the trio, and Antonio Meneses was the cellist. This was recorded in 2005, not as part of a live performance, this was for an album they released. But the recording was made in Auer Hall, like most of the music we’re listening to this hour. This is The Beaux Arts Trio performing the Piano Trio No. 1 in c minor, by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Aaron Cain: Violinist Daniel Hope, cellist Antonio Meneses, and pianist Menahem Pressler. The Beaux Arts Trio. Performing the Piano Trio number on in c minor, by Dmitri Shostakovich. That was recorded in Auer Hall, at the Jacobs School, in 2005. The Beaux Arts Trio took its final bow in 2008. Menachem was 85. He didn't even consider retiring. His friends say that word was not even in his vocabulary. Pressler said music made him feel alive. 

Menahem Pressler: A great German magazine, one of which is the German Time magazine called Der Spiegel, The mirror. And the man said to me, “Mr. Pressler, how does a pianist in the biblical—of Biblical age feel?” So I told him, “When I play, I don't feel older than 50. When I teach, I don't feel older than 40. But when I walk up the stairs, I feel my age.” 

Aaron Cain: Menahem went back to his solo career and a dizzying performance schedule, all the while continuing to teach. 

Menahem Pressler: When you have a student with whom you share your insight into things, then you feel not only the pleasure of having done when you play a good performance, but the pleasure of having enriched and opened a young mind. It is something that you don't do because it's a profession. You don't do for any other reason, at that point. You play the concerts because t hat's what you are. And you teach, as that’s what you love. And so, it is beautiful to be able to combine the two. That is the joy of a teacher. 

Aaron Cain: Let’s hear one more piece of solo piano music performed by Menahem Pressler, from another live performance at the Jacobs School; a concert celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Robert A. and Sandra S. Borns Jewish Studies Program at Indiana University. This is a Nocturne, in c-sharp minor, by Frédéric Chopin.  

Aaron Cain: Menahem Pressler, performing the nocturne in c-sharp minor, opus posthumous. Recorded in 2013, during a concert to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Robert A. and Sandra S. Borns Jewish Studies Program at Indiana University. Pressler continued to teach at IU and conduct master classes around the world until his death. In a 2005 interview, Pressler was asked how he wanted to be remembered.

Menahem Pressler: “He was a musician who gave us great pleasure. And that each time we heard him he gave 100%. Never less.” 

Aaron Cain: His legacy will live on in his recordings and through the thousands of students he mentored. They can be found as featured soloists in concert halls, and on the faculties of prestigious schools of music across the world, where they themselves have become some of today’s most prominent and influential artists and teachers, giving 100 percent. Never less. Thank you for joining me for this tribute to the legendary pianist and teacher Menachem Pressler. This program was created by me, Aaron Cain, and by WFIU’s News Bureau chief, Sara Wittmeyer, with production assistance from Christopher Burrus, WFIU’s Assistant Music Director. And we are extremely grateful for the participation of the IU Jacobs School of music, especially Phillip Ponella, the Wennerstrom-Philips Music Library Director of Music Information Technology. Thanks also to Anthony Tadey and Travis Whaley. This program has been made possible through generous support from the Wennerstrom-Phillips Classical Music Fund. Thanks again for joining us. And Thanks for listening.
Menahem Pressler

Menahem Pressler (Photo by Marco Borggreve/Warner Classics)

This past May, the world lost renowned pianist and Indiana University Jacobs School of Music faculty member Menahem Pressler, whose storied musical career spanned 70 years. 

On the weekend he would have turned 100, WFIU offered this special radio program to celebrate the life and work of Menahem Pressler. A Tribute to Menahem Pressler was first aired Saturday, December 16, 2023, on what would have been Pressler’s 100th birthday.

The program features excerpts of interviews with Menahem Pressler discussing his life growing up in Nazi Germany and immigrating to the United States in 1946. He also recounts his experience teaching at the IU Jacobs School of Music and shares stories of his time with the Beaux Arts Trio and other musicians he performed with over the years.

Interwoven throughout the interview clips are selections of Menahem Pressler’s music, including chamber and solo performances, several of which were drawn from the IU Jacobs School of Music Archives. WFIU worked closely with the generous staff of the IU Jacobs School of Music to select the pieces for A Tribute to Menahem Pressler, which is the first program of a continuing collaboration that we are developing with the IU Jacobs School of Music to broadcast recordings of music performances from their extensive archives. 

In a 2005 interview, Pressler said he would like others to remember him as “a musician who gave us great pleasure. And that each time we heard him, he gave 100 percent—never less.” His legacy will live on in his recordings and through the thousands of students he mentored. They can be found as featured soloists in concert halls, and on the faculties of prestigious schools of music across the world, where they have become some of today’s most prominent and influential artists and teachers.

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