Monday, October 14, 2013

Review: Menahem Pressler

with New York Chamber Soloists
Oct. 12, Virginia Commonwealth University

At the beginning of the second half of the VCU Rennolds Concerts performance by pianist Menahem Pressler and the New York Chamber Soloists, the ensemble’s clarinetist, Allen Blustine, turned to the audience:

“Anyone here have perfect pitch?”

Few if any hands went up.

“Good,” he said.

’Nuff said, I’d say, about the intonational (and other) problems that plagued the wind ensemble in Mozart’s Divertimento in B flat major, K. 439b, and Quintet in E flat major, K. 452, for piano and winds during the first half of the program.

The four wind players also joined the pianist in Beethoven’s Quintet in E flat major, Op. 16, for piano and winds to close the program; but like a number of concertgoers, I left before that performance.

Pressler, the longtime pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio, was the star of this outing. He turns 90 later this year. Age has robbed him of some facility – he dropped some notes and muddled some figurations in six bagatelles from Beethoven’s Op. 33 set and of Mozart’s great Rondo in A minor, K. 511; but his tone production remains crystalline, and the musicality developed and deepened over a 70-year career more than compensated for technical flaws in his performances.

Especially so in the Mozart rondo, a work that could be cited as proof of the comment (attributed to Artur Schnabel) that Mozart is too easy for children and too hard for adults. Introducing the rondo, Pressler recalled the great pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski observing that pianists choosing to play K. 511 in competitions inevitably lost.

Pressler himself delayed adding the piece to his repertory until he was in his 80s. “I have to play this piece,” he told the audience. “If I fail, I fail.”

His performance was a tutorial on how to handle the ambiguities of minor-key Mozart. While playful, as a rondo should be, and as Mozart almost always is in his keyboard music, Pressler also captured the rueful, “if only” tone that pervades this remarkable work.

The Mozart rondo tends to tower over other works with which it’s programmed. In this program, it towered even higher.