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24.12.03

Happy Birthday, Menahem — by Jens Laurson

On Tuesday, December 16th, the Library of Congress featured the 80th Birthday Concert of Menahem Pressler, founding member and pianist of the world-renowned Beaux Arts Trio. It ended up being a birthday gift to all those in attendance at the Coolidge Auditorium, which was filled to the last seat. As the Orpheus Quartett [sic] relates to us and the birthday boy in the accolades printed in the program, Menahem Pressler is "the only pianist with a bow in his hands."

I have never seen so large a crowd at any of the Library's concerts, not for the Juilliard Quartet, not for the Keller Quartet, or for any other artists I have seen this year. That it was a Tuesday evening made it even more surprising. Of course, I once again stumbled into the Library without a ticket (they have a tendency to sell out on Ticketmaster within 15 minutes of their being offered), only to find myself in a brimming full waiting room, without even a "number," the piece of paper handed to the ticketless to determine the order in which latecomers receive returned, unused, and otherwise available tickets.

Given some 5 or 6 dozen fellow octogenarians in waiting ("fellow" referring to Mr. Pressler, not myself), the prospects were rather dim. Fortunately, I made the acquaintance of some generous ladies, who not only offered insights as to the popularity of the event, but also one of their "numbers" (#3), since they had received all the tickets they needed. With such a serendipitous turn of events, I was ushered into the auditorium to a great seat, and with time to spare.

The skill and attraction of Mr. Pressler alone did not explain the unusual crowd, since many superb artists have come and gone, and for lack of star-quality name recognition have drawn less-than-filled venues. (The Chilingirian String Quartet comes to mind.) I was also not convinced that Ludwig van Beethoven's birthday—which I expected to be reflected in the program—had drawn people from their homes to the Library at 8.00 pm on a nice, if somewhat chilly, night. Instead, the extraordinary popularity of this concert was mainly because the Beaux Arts Trio used to be the Trio in Residence at the Library of Congress, and consequently there were many ardent followers and connoisseurs of Mr. Pressler's art.

Seated, finally and luckily, with the program in my hand, I sat down to await Menahem Pressler. Short, smiling, sunny, he came onto the stage, sat down, hit a wrong note, and played through the Schubert Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960. Given that Mr. Pressler hit the same note that I had assumed wrong every time he repeated the opening theme of the Molto moderato, I quickly shifted blame from Mr. Pressler to Mr. Schubert. (A score at home confirmed this suspicion, though Mitsuko Uchida hits the seemingly disturbing note far more gently in her recording.)

Pressler plays the piano calmly and sits at the Steinway like other people would at the dinner table, a stark contrast to the gymnastics performed by Angela Hewitt during her Sunday performance at the National Gallery of Art (see Angela, Joy of Man's Desiring, December 18). His face, however, expresses a genuine joy in music making that delights on its own. The man is visibly in his environment, his feet barely touching the ground while playing, continuously talking to himself, his face in constant movement. The Schubert sonata is so lovely in any rendition that one just leans back and enjoys the ride. A couple of botched notes towards the end can't detract.

The delighted audience included his manager, Melvin Kaplan, a delegation from the Israeli Embassy, Washington Post reporters, and other well-wishers. After the intermission, Mr. Pressler continued the program with Chopin’s 24 Preludes, op. 28. Chopin, as the always outstanding program tells us, arranged the twenty-four preludes so that they may be played singly or as a cycle. "As the latter, there is a built-in progression from one to the next that provides a carefully designed sense of tension and release, a degree of contrast, and key choices that create appropriate transitions." Ruth Foss, from the Music Division of the Library of Congress, guides us through the preludes with a short and precise sentence on each of them. The agitation of the first prelude I fail to notice, and the second, although slow, does not seem dissonant to me.

The preludes flew by me (prelude No. 9 is a mere 12 bars long, others, too, occupy only some four staves on the score), until Prelude No. 10 (C-sharp Minor—Allegro molto) stood out and matched its description in the program notes precisely. Brief and sparkling indeed. Before one has fully enjoyed that short piece, one is already taken by the truly powerful whirlwind of Prelude No. 12 (G-sharp Major—Presto) which caused several exclamation marks in my program. No. 14 was wild and (very!) Allegro, played in the lower register of the piano. It contrasted starkly with No. 15, (D-flat Major—Sostenuto), nicknamed the Raindrop Prelude (see Waiting out Isabel, September 18), more famous than its 23 cousins, engrossing, and lasting long enough to write about while listening. Mr. Pressler hopped on the keys, moved with his entire body (which would not be much on its own, were it not for the energy he develops) into the notes, only then to return to a very mild tone that he lured out of the piano with all gentleness and the utmost emotionality.

No. 16 (B-flat Major—Presto con fuoco) is imposing, swift, racing, galloping: one is thrown into music that takes no prisoners. Maybe only one minute long, but a splendid shot of adrenaline. The more moderately paced No.17 (A-flat Major—Allegretto) flowed nicely, and the program notes describe it as a poetic song without words, a description I do not quite hear as obviously as perhaps Mme. Foss does. No. 18 (F Minor—Allegro molto) is short and flies by swiftly. Sweetly bubbling is No. 19 (E-flat Major—Vivace), talkative like your teenage niece at the family reunion. This is followed by No. 20 (C Minor—Largo), somber, like a grumpy grandfather, Bach-like, suggesting the organ. Enter the seemingly unremarkable, unmemorable No. 21 (B-flat Major—Cantabile), followed by a prelude that is still somewhat dark in character, but far livelier than its predecessor. In the end, No. 22 (G Minor—Molto agitato) employs a show-stopping last chord that has the arms of the performer spread out to the very lowest and highest register of the instrument. No. 23 (F Major—Moderato) purls off the piano like drops of water for some forty seconds before the conclusion begins, in No. 24 (D Minor—Allegro appassionato), sweeping, broad, interlaced with runs. Deep bells ring out the last three notes.

Upon the last notes' reverberations being lost in the Coolidge Auditorium, the crowd broke into enthusiastic applause and bravos such as I have not witnessed in Washington before. It took just one curtain call for Mr. Pressler to get started on the encore. As of now, I have not determined which piece he offered to us, and I doubt that my notes (yielding "ba BING, da.da.da.da.da.da.da.da / dim / dim") will lead me to the answer anytime soon.

Since the audience was not making any signs of being ready to go home, Mr. Pressler saw himself forced to delight with a second encore, and this time the message was clear: Brahms's Lullaby, received with immediate laughter by the crowd, reminded us that it was probably bedtime for an 80-year-old on a Tuesday night, even if neither he nor his playing showed any sign of exhaustion. Following the applause after the Brahms, the audience then intoned a quick "Happy Birthday" before it dispersed into the night, undoubtedly most of them extremely satisfied and grateful for a lovely night out.

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