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Music

Life begins at 90: ECHO Klassik honors Menahem Pressler

After 55 years at the helm of the Beaux Arts Trio, the pianist, now 91, embarked on an astonishing solo career. On Sunday, October 18, he receives the German Phono Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award.

"When I play, I'm never older than 50. When I teach, I'm never older than 40. Only when I have to climb the stairs do I notice my full age."

He may in fact now be the world's oldest concert pianist. "It is the work of a lifetime that is being honored here, in the finest sense of the word," wrote the German Phono Academy jury in its announcement of this year's ECHO Klassik Lifetime Achievement Award. "In Menahem Pressler, we honor an exceptional artist of world renown - and an extraordinary man."

Pressler will perform at the ceremony honoring this year's 60 ECHO Klassik winners in Berlin on Sunday. Largely reflecting sales success, the distinction is awarded by the Cultural Institute of the National Association of Music Industries (BVMI) and is one of the most prestigious honors in classical music. It will join the pianist's long list of distinctions, including four honorary doctorates and six Grammy nominations.

Today and yesterday

"Lifetime Achievement Award" may suggest that those achievements lie in the past, but Pressler doesn't dwell in it. Neither do the critics. The New York Times calls him "a poet, time and again revealing unexpected depths in works that have been endlessly plumbed and surveyed." The Los Angeles Times observes that "Menahem Pressler’s joyous pianism - technically faultless, stylistically impeccable, emotionally irrepressible - is from another age and is a virtually forgotten sensibility" and goes on to call him "a national treasure."

Max and Leo Pressler, approx. 1935. Copyright: Familienarchiv Pressler

Childhood as Max in Magdeburg, here with brother Leo

The United States may claim the longstanding professor at Indiana University as its own, but Pressler is a native of Magdeburg, Germany. Encouraged by his violinist colleague Daniel Hope, Pressler took on German citizenship in 2012, adding that to his US and Israeli citizenships.

Born Max Pressler in 1923, the son of a Jewish clothes merchant, he was expelled from high school after the Nazis came to power. His father's shop was destroyed during the Reichspogromnacht (November pogrom or Night of Broken Glass) in 1938. The immediate family fled via Italy to Palestine. Left behind in Germany, his grandparents and other family members were murdered in the Holocaust.

Even during flight, exile and hardship, the young artist maintained a positive attitude. "I, the optimist, went to Israel, but there I couldn't eat. I was traumatized but didn't know it. Neither did my father. I could only allow myself that because I was talented - but I kept getting thinner and weaker. It took a long time till I overcame that - in my family, nobody went to a psychologist for therapy."

Menahem Pressler with his wife Sara and his sister-in-law Ilna in New York, 1950s. Copyright: Familienarchiv Pressler

With wife Sara and sister-in-law Ilna in New York, 1950s

Homeland in the piano trio

Emigrating again to the United States in 1940, Pressler changed his first name to Menahem. After winning the Debussy Piano Competition in San Francisco in 1946, he studied under the famous pianist Bruno Walter and embarked on a career as a soloist. Moving to Bloomington, where he still makes his home, in 1955, he began an ongoing, nearly six-decade career as instructor of piano at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. Pressler also gives master classes worldwide.

The year 1955 saw another milestone, when Pressler founded the Beaux Arts Trio, which premiered at that year's Berkshire Music Festival. "Legendary" is no hyperbolic description of the ensemble, which in more than 50 recordings, captured much of the entire piano chamber repertoire on record and later CD and brought it to worldwide attention.

Added to that are more than 30 recordings of Pressler as a solo artist. Still, his name is indelibly linked to the Beaux Arts Trio, which said its final farewell in the 2007-2008 season, with violinist Daniel Hope and cellist Antonio Meneses. With Hope seeking a solo career, Pressler didn't want to train a new member, having worked with several violinists in the trio over the course of nearly 55 years.

Going solo

With his solo career in full swing, the 1.56-meter (5-foot, 2-inch) Pressler gave his first performance with the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle at the orchestra's New Year's Eve Concert last December - playing Mozart, whom the pianist calls "a gift." Nor does he tire of other composers. "If you're serious about being a musician, you can never say: 'I know Schubert so well and there's nothing more to discover there,'" Pressler said. "It's so rich, so deep. I've played the Ravel Trio maybe 600 times, but every time I play the beginning again, chills go down my spine."

Menahem Pressler with Magdeburg's Mayor Lutz Trümper

Magdeburg's Mayor Lutz Trümper makes Pressler an honorary citizen of the city, 2009

Pressler considers himself fortunate, saying that "the piano saved my spirit and gave my life a purpose ... I've had a hunger for music making all my life, and that hunger hasn't abated."

Upcoming solo appearances include further performances with the Berlin Philharmonic, as well as the Orchestre de Paris and the Concertgebouw-Orchester Amsterdam.

"The Life I Love: The Pianist Menahem Pressler" - a coproduction of Deutsche Welle and the Bavarian, West German and Berlin-Brandenburg public broadcasting corporations - was recently honored at the Golden Prague Grand Prix international television festival.

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