Music review: Menahem Pressler at JCC

May 16, 2011

When and how a musician quits the public stage at the end of life is a personal decision. Some have cut short their performing careers before the signs of decline are apparent. Menahem Pressler, who turned 87 last December, has chosen to soldier on, most recently with a solo recital at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville on Sunday. The facility of his once-fluent fingers continues to fade, but in spite of the technical flaws, he gave a performance that was imbued with strange interpretive choices and an understated, autumnal radiance.

In his charming personal introductions to the program, Pressler made no mention of the passing two days earlier of Bernard Greenhouse, the cellist with whom he founded the legendary Beaux Arts Trio in 1955, but mortality seemed to hang over this recital, which featured late sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert. Pressler gave Beethoven’s Op. 110 sonata an almost too quiet quality, slowing many of the tempos and giving the third movement a lost, wandering sound.

Schubert’s final sonata, D. 960, had a similar elegiac tone, with a free rubato creating some tender poetry in this tragic statement made in the face of death. Pressler even characterized the menacing trill, which unsettles the first movement’s sunny main theme, as “like a wind blowing over a grave.”

Half-articulated, even clumsily approximated details abounded: mushy arpeggios and poorly delineated fugal voices in the Beethoven, labored trills and heavy left-hand figuration in the Schubert. The shortcomings were most evident in the middle work, Debussy’s evocative “Estampes.” Pressler’s touch at the keyboard can still be impressively soft, used here to give these pieces the sense of foggy memories. Encores of Chopin’s C Minor Nocturne, Op.posth., and an arrangement of Brahms’s “Wiegenlied” were equally nostalgic. Pressler’s words describing Beethoven’s Op. 110 sonata as a sort of musical autobiography also provide a fitting assessment of Pressler’s achievements: “Here was a life well spent, to which we can only say ‘Amen.’ ”

Downey is a freelance writer.


Photo of pianist Menahem Pressler. (Marco Borgreve/Marco Borgreve)
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