The Hunger Within

Menahem Pressler must have three arms, I think the first time I listen to one of his piano recordings. Each of his hands must have seven or eight fingers. There is simply no way anyone with a normal set of limbs could get the sounds out of the instrument that Pressler does, the chords that crash like lightning into oak trees, the breathtaking runs up and down the piano like ten thousand people starting the Boston Marathon, the touch on some notes so light that Sherlock Holmes could dust the keyboard and not find any fingerprints.

But Pressler is no mutant, I discover when I meet him. He is a dignified looking gentleman with a ready smile and a warm, gracious manner--and two hands, five fingers on each. Still, when he shakes my hand in greeting, I hold on a moment longer than I should, hoping that something magic will rub off. Pressler, distinguished professor of music at the Indiana University School of Music, has been one of the premier pianists in the world for almost half a century. Born in Germany, he and his family went to Israel (then called Palestine) to escape the Nazis. In 1946 Pressler won the prestigious Claude Debussey Prize in San Francisco. The following year his American debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra was such a success that he was offered a contract for the next four seasons--only the second time in history that had happened. Over the ensuing years he soloed with orchestras across America and Europe, winning acclaim wherever he appeared.

In 1955 Pressler's already sparkling career took another fortunate turn almost by accident. Wanting to try chamber music, he formed a trio with violinist Daniel Guilet and cellist Bernard Greenhouse to play a handful of concerts and perhaps record a single album. Thus the Beaux Arts Trio was born. Their debut at Tanglewood (in Massachusetts) was such a stunning success that they were engaged for an additional seventy concerts. Their third recording won the prestigious Grand Prix Nationale du Disque.

Today, eight thousand concerts, seventy-five records, many awards, and several new members later, Pressler is still playing with the Beaux Arts Trio, and it is still considered the best piano trio in the world.

This summer Pressler achieved something of a milestone in his long career, playing two nights in a row at Carnegie Hall and then the next two nights right across the street at Avery Fisher Hall. "Four days in New York," he says, his voice bubbling with disbelief. "That's as good as you can dream of."

As gratifying as his many triumphs have been, it is not the external rewards of the concert hall that have driven Pressler to play all these years, but the beauty and depth of the music itself. "I've always had the great hunger to play the piano, to make music," he says. "Even today, I seem not to have lost the appetite, the hunger." The appetite can never be sated because the music can never be fully fathomed-- especially the music of Pressler's favorite composers. "I derive the deepest satisfaction out of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Schumann," Pressler says, his voice growing reverent. "It's not that I don't love to play the works of other composers. But the ones that need the greatest concentration and the deepest search for the meaning--a lifetime doesn't suffice to go to the bottom."

What is Pressler searching for in the music? The first time he plays a piece, he simply wants to get the notes right and to follow the cues of the composer. But as he gets deeper into a piece, something strange happens, an almost magical fusion between the original vision of the composer and the equally compelling interpretation of the performer.

"Slowly that work takes on its own face within you, so that actually you are part of the face," he says. "You are not just a Xerox machine, following the score, and what you see, that's all there is. It is very often what you don't see, what is between the lines, that's important. It is the beauty, and it is a great source of strength to find those things that are between the lines. They force you to think, but since music is the language of the soul and of the ear, it is not knowledge alone, it is your sensitivity and sensibility that become aware of connections inside the works that may only be there for you, and, I would go even a step further, that you may only imagine."

It is this kind of imagination that separates the merely good pianists from the very great ones, Pressler maintains. "What we find with many players," Pressler says, "is not that they lack the technique, not that they lack musicianship. What they lack is the imagination that lets them take flight. You can always walk on safe ground. You can always say, 'Look, it's written there, exactly.' Or you can imagine it, and you can convince by the way you play it, that it is there. And that's what's beautiful." When music is played like that, it stirs something deep inside almost everyone who hears it. "We can go with that music, with that Beethoven, that Schubert, to all four corners of the world," he says, "and it has that effect. And what is even more wonderful is that everybody is able to make it his."

"And this is where teaching comes in. You don't just teach the rudiments or the techniques of becoming a pianist. You don't just teach students to read correctly those scores. Instead, you try to open in students that specific something that everybody has more or less according to talent. And it will enrich the life of the one who is going to be the teacher in Martinsville as much as the performer in all the countries of the world."

It is hard to believe that Pressler has any time to teach, with his full concert and recording schedule. But like every professor in the School of Music, he teaches a full load of 18 students, each getting a one hour lesson every week. He also teaches a series of master classes during the summer. It is demanding work, but Pressler does not consider it a burden. Far from it.

"Teaching has been a very, very important part of my life," he says. "I derive the deepest satisfaction by trying to touch students through the understanding, the deep understanding, and imbuing them with that love that I have for music."

On both points--emotion and understanding, heart and mind--Pressler is obviously making his mark. "He tries to get me to see the essence of the music, and to be able to communicate that, and to feel it and enjoy it as much as he does," says Christopher Harding, one of Pressler's graduate students. "Indeed, that joy of music just radiates from him. That's why I wanted to study with him in the first place."

Undergraduate Zaiba Sheikh explains how Pressler has helped her to think, to probe more deeply into the music. "Before I came here, I was all intuition," she says. "Now I can feel myself thinking better. It might not always come out that way, but I think of myself as more logical, with everything directed toward the interpretative idea at the end."

Both students consider themselves fortunate to have Pressler for a teacher. Harding: "The more I get to know him the more I am terribly terribly grateful that I caught him at this moment in my life." Sheikh: "I'm very lucky to be doing this, not just because he's a world renowned pianist, but because I can really understand what he's getting at. I'm very lucky to have found somebody like that, a real teacher." One of Pressler's former students is Charles H. Webb Jr., dean of the School of Music, who studied piano with Pressler in the early 1960s. "He's a marvelous teacher," says Webb. "He's certainly one of the best piano teachers in the world today, and people come to him from all over the world to study piano."

In many fields, a professor does not necessarily have to be a master teacher to be named distinguished professor (though most who have earned that title are). The School of Music, however, makes teaching a mandatory criterion. "The University wants to recognize people who have international distinction in their chosen field of endeavor," says Webb. "And the Music School adds to that, if we're going to make the recommendation, that they be known as superior teachers because the real contribution that people make to this school is through active and dynamic contact with students."

Pressler certainly meets those two criteria, and in 1975 he was named distinguished professor of music. "There are many distinguished people around here," Pressler says. "I have always taken it as a great honor, and I don't take the honor lightly." Indeed, Pressler practices, performs, and teaches with as much intensity as ever, maybe more. "I have toiled the same way I did when I just was a young artist-in- residence. As a distinguished professor, I feel a sense of noblesse oblige, which means when you are honored you have to deserve that honor--every day anew, every time anew, which is very, very nice."

He certainly has lost none of his passion for the music over the years. Upon request, Pressler sits down at one of the two Steinway grand pianos in his studio and begins to play. He strikes the opening chords of a Chopin Nocturne, C# minor, Op. posth., and over the next two minutes--or two seconds or two centuries, it is hard to tell-- the core of human experience is laid bare in that studio: love, joy, pain, grief. The music stirs a deep regret for what has been lost in life, a deep longing for what can never be attained, but an even deeper sense of gratitude for what has been given. In some inexplicable way, the tragedy of existence is transformed by the vision of the composer and the imagination of the pianist into a triumph of the human spirit. Distinguished professor indeed! Pressler is an international treasure. He holds the secret of being in his hands and gives a little piece of it away each time he teaches, each time he plays.

--Mark Buechler