MENAHEM PRESSLER – CLAIR DE LUNE

For over half a century, from 1955 to 2008, Menahem Pressler was the pianist of the legendary Beaux Arts Trio. Having devoted his energies to his solo career for the last ten years, he is now, at the age of 94, releasing his first solo album on Deutsche Grammophon.

Pressler’s chosen programme of works by Debussy, Fauré and Ravel is his tribute to composers whose music has played a vital role in the development of his career ever since he was awarded First Prize at the 1946 Debussy Competition in San Francisco.

Born into a Jewish family in Magdeburg, Germany, on 16 December 1923, Pressler had few opportunities to explore the French repertoire during his early years of study. He was only nine when the Nazis took power in 1933. Five years later, his father’s shop was looted during the Kristallnacht attacks of 9 November 1938, and the family left Germany the following year, shortly before the outbreak of war.

Having settled in Palestine in 1939, Pressler studied first with Eliahu Rudiakov (1907-69), then with Leo Kestenberg (1882-1962), who had himself worked with Busoni in Berlin. Burning with an irresistible desire to explore Debussy’s language and harmonic invention, when he heard about the new Debussy Competition being held in San Francisco in 1946 Pressler decided to enter, despite the fact that, at the time, his repertoire only included Clair de lune and the two Arabesques.

Pressler explains: “I owe to pianist Paul Loyonnet (1889-1988), who was touring in Palestine shortly after the war, my real introduction to Debussy. In Paris, Loyonnet had studied with Ravel’s piano teacher. During his years at the Conservatoire, he had heard Ricardo Viñes, who had premiered many of the works of his friends Debussy and Ravel. Most importantly, Loyonnet had met Debussy and played some of his Preludes for him. The six lessons he gave me opened a new world: I worked meticulously on every shade of the dynamic markings (e.g. clearly differentiating between a pp and a ppp) or on the precise meaning of the French expressive indications (for example, “Dans un rythme sans rigueur et caressant” – “In a loose and caressing rhythm” – which the composer wrote at the beginning of Voiles). In short, I learned how to read Debussy’s music.”

Pressler won first prize at the Debussy Competition (for which he had managed to learn the composer’s complete works for solo piano) and his international career took flight immediately afterwards: “I made my Carnegie Hall debut with the Schumann Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Eugene Ormandy.” In the following seasons, he returned to New York to perform under the baton of George Szell and Leopold Stokowski. During these early visits to the US, he was also introduced by his friend the composer Franz Waxman to such luminaries of the worlds of music, art and literature as Alma Mahler, Thomas Mann, Igor Stravinsky, Jascha Heifetz and Bruno Walter.

Pressler founded the Beaux Arts Trio in 1955, alongside French violinist Daniel Guilet (1899-1990): “I had been introduced to Daniel Guilet, who had studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Enescu and took part in Joseph Calvet’s famous quartet, with whom he had performed for Ravel.” In July that same year, the newly formed ensemble stood in at the last minute for the Albeneri Trio at Tanglewood, a performance that won it the lasting support of Charles Munch, the then Festival Director, as well as numerous additional engagements elsewhere. Robert Casadesus, a former student of Ravel with whom Pressler had studied in Fontainebleau, helped the Trio launch its career in Europe.

Since the Beaux Arts Trio stopped performing in 2008, Pressler has resumed an extraordinary solo career, appearing at such major international centres as Berlin (twice with the Berliner Philharmoniker, including the New Year’s concert), London, Paris, Amsterdam, Dresden, Geneva, Boston, Chicago and Tokyo, as well as returning to play every year in his home town of Magdeburg.

This recording is dedicated to Lady Annabelle Weidenfeld, who has provided essential support to his new life as soloist: “I first met Annabelle when she was a young girl working for the manager of the Beaux Arts Trio in London. She later moved to Madrid and often brought the Trio to Spain. This recording is dedicated to her with all my love and gratitude.”