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Keeping His Hands In : Menahem Pressler Is Returning to 50-Year-Old Career Roots as a Solo Pianist


Pianist Menahem Pressler earned a right to relax a long time ago. He founded the Beaux Arts Trio in 1955, and that group has set the standards in that repertory for more than 40 years. The trio is still playing, and at 73, he's still in it, the only original member.

Recently, however, Pressler began hitting the road as a recitalist. This brings his career full circle, since he started as a solo pianist.

He comes to the Irvine Barclay Theatre on Sunday for a recital sponsored by the university's department of music. He also will teach a piano master class Monday at 1 p.m. in the UC Irvine Fine Arts Concert Hall.

"I'm not a person who enjoys vacations, lying on a beach doing nothing or reading a book, or taking a little ball and hitting it until it falls into a little hole," Pressler said by phone from his office at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he has taught since 1955.

"Basking in the close of a career is meaningless to me. What is important is to do things I'm hungry to do. I feel I'm born to play and privileged to play. It's as close to the composer as I can get when I play and when I teach. Both are the most important parts of my life."

Pressler was born in Magdeburg, Germany, in 1923 and escaped the Nazis with his family by immigrating to Palestine in 1939. There, he studied with Leo Kesterberg and later, at Mills College in Oakland with Egon Petri. Both had been students of the legendary pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni.


Pressler launched his U.S. career by winning first prize at the Debussy Piano Competition in San Francisco in 1946. A year later, he landed in Carnegie Hall to play Schumann's Piano Concerto with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Since then, he has played Carnegie Hall in a number of capacities--as a concerto soloist, Beaux Arts Trio member and guest pianist with a string quartet. But he had never appeared as a solo recitalist until last year, in response to an invitation from the hall's management.

"My first reaction was 'No. It's silly. What, I'm going to do a recital now?' " he said.

"Then I thought, if I don't accept and don't play it, I would give in to the fear that I can't live up to it, and so I would deny the purpose of my life. So I accepted. But it was not an easy matter. It meant working very, very hard, giving up many hours of sleep to do that and all my other commitments."

He felt he had to choose a special program for his recital, and it's the same one he'll play at UCI: Haydn's Sonata in E-flat, No. 62; Schumann's "Faschingsschwank aus Wien" (Carnival Prank from Vienna); Debussy's "Estampes" and Chopin's 24 Preludes, Opus 28.

"I selected the Haydn sonata--his last one, which he wrote as an old man--because it is full of invention, full of virtuosity, full of harmonic interchange and surprise. So it's true that an old man can have all those feelings! There I was feeling completely united with that man. I also feel all those feelings."

He picked Schumann because he loves his music and feels that the composer "is really not well understood."

" 'Faschingsschwank' is not a hackneyed work. No one plays it. I've been immersing myself in it and finding that which make Schumann Schumann, the wonderful romantic expression and the schizophrenic moments. Yes, he underwent schizophrenia, and some of the pieces are very strange. But as soon as you can hear his voice, his voice is beautiful and romantic."

Debussy, he said, was a return to his career beginnings, and Chopin fit because "as a trio player, you have no Chopin to play. So I selected the 24 preludes, which is also coming full circle because it's his homage to Bach. When you take [the 24] together, they are a complete masterpiece. You really take a trip around the world."

From his vantage point as a teacher and as a competition judge, Pressler considers most young pianists "technically excellent."

"Musically, they're fine, too. One can never play badly in the sense of using the wrong words when you speak. But I've found very, very seldom love and identification with the music. When you play, the music must first of all speak to yourself. Only through that can you speak to others.

"So when I teach, after emphasizing the technical expertise, after showing the difference in styles of composers, after teaching the vocabulary for the given composer--not just one piece, but all his works--then I try to have them fall in love with the composers, with what they have to say.

"When they start to love and identify with them, at the same time it liberates them. When you speak to a composer, then you feel you understand his syntax, his language. Now the meaning you find doesn't mean that this is the meaning. It's the meaning you have found and that you would like to share.

"We are on this mysterious trip through the composer's mind. We will never come to the end of it," Pressler said. "A lifetime is not long enough to have spent with those masterworks. It's an adventurous trip through that music, and that's what keeps it fresh. This is what drives me, as if I can never get enough of it. If I have the privilege of decent hands, of course I want to do it."

* Menahem Pressler will play a recital of works by Haydn, Schumann, Debussy and Chopin on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive. $12 to $40. (714) 854-4646. The master class Monday is free to the public. (714) 824-6615.

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