It is remarkable that until only a few years before his death on Saturday at age 99, Menahem Pressler was still a fixture on the world’s most distinguished concert stages. His compelling artistry was a wondrous phenomenon for decades; his concert and teaching activities during his nineties defied logic and convention, as he rose to one occasion after another as if reborn through the music itself.
We are among the fortunate who knew Pressler in the triple role of colleague, mentor, and friend. To make music with him meant you had to push yourself beyond your current level of artistry; to receive his advice (whether asked for or not) was a treasured opportunity to gain wisdom from someone far more experienced and eminently successful; and to have him as a friend who would answer your call at any hour of the day or night, on any continent, was truly a personal blessing we shall never forget.
The facts of Menahem Pressler’s life and career are well documented: having narrowly escaped the horrors of Kristallnacht in his home country of Germany, he fled with his parents to Israel, where he began his professional career. His prominence as a soloist did not deter him, however, from founding a piano trio in 1955, at a time when even a career in the more popular genre of the string quartet was a gamble. While the inspiration provided by the Beaux Arts Trio spawned many a piano trio during its 53-year run, no ensemble ever rivalled it. Not even the world’s most famous string quartets could have (or would have) truthfully claimed the No. 1 spot in their genre. What Pressler built with the Beaux Arts Trio will likely remain unique in the world of classical music.
Given the prominence of the Beaux Arts Trio in chamber music, it was surprising for us to learn that CMS had existed for 24 years before Pressler and the Trio appeared on our stage, twice during the 1990s. After arriving at CMS as artistic directors, we hastened to bring Menahem Pressler back: on May 2, 2006, he performed at our Spring Gala, and on March 16, 2008, appeared in a concert titled The Pressler Effect, in which he collaborated with a host of musicians, some of them (very purposefully) newly inducted members of the CMS Two Program, now the Bowers Program. But the biggest Pressler-fest we enjoyed took place on December 14, 2013, two days before his 90th birthday: in this Pressler at 90 concert, he was joined by the Beaux Arts Trio’s final violinist, Daniel Hope, and his long-time collaborators the Emerson String Quartet for an evening including music for piano four hands, piano trio, and piano quintet. We participated as well, as musical collaborators and as presenters (to Menahem) of the first CMS Award for Extraordinary Service to Chamber Music. It was a night to remember, and CMS is proud and grateful that Menahem saw fit to celebrate his amazing milestone with us.
As we mourn his loss, we naturally redouble our efforts to practice our art at the standard he expected of us. Nothing could have made him happier in his final moments than to know his work continues, and that he remains the guiding light which has shown the way to so many.
David Finckel and Wu Han