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Menahem Pressler Still Going Strong

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

The National Gallery of Art inaugurated another year of its fine free Sunday concert series with a jam-packed concert featuring the NGA String Quartet. Well, to be honest, the reason that enough people came that some were turned away at the door was that beloved pianist Menahem Pressler, formerly of the Beaux Arts Trio, was in town. With veteran page-turner Elmer Booze coming out of retirement to assist Pressler, it certainly did seem like old times. The intermission-less program was a pairing of delicacies of the piano chamber music repertory, a Mozart antipasto and Schumann for the main course, with some Brahms for luscious dessert.

This is music that is generally performed by a temporary collaboration of musicians, as was the case the last time we reviewed Menahem Pressler. Although one could have wished for better quality in the string playing -- some raucous intonation, tentative playing, and lack of polish and ensemble cohesion -- it was a joy to hear Pressler playing at the end of a distinguished career. That wealth of experience is bound to improve the end result, and thus it certainly was.

Menahem Pressler:
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Schumann op. 44

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Mozart K. 478
Pressler, who turned 85 last month, continued to show a less agile hand in the filigree bits of Mozart's G minor piano quartet, K. 478, but he still knows exactly what to do with a musical phrase, as he showed at the beginning of the absolutely gorgeous second movement, which the piano opens alone.

Schumann's exceptional piano quintet in E-flat major, op. 44, was the main attraction, with a heroic first movement, slightly out of kilter, driven ahead by Pressler. The devastating funeral march of the second movement was tearless, a somewhat dry and ghostly edginess predominating, with wolfish viola solos by Osmin Kivrak. The dashing parallel chords of the third movement eluded Pressler somewhat, but the movement had a fleet, appealing impetus to it, and the fourth was equally exciting, with its intense contrapuntal passages. The Andante, un poco Adagio from Brahms's F minor piano quintet, op. 34, was "exquisite," as Pressler called it, again mostly because it put this seasoned performer in the lead role.

The next free concert in the Sunday series at the National Gallery of Art will feature the Ma'alot Wind Quintet, in the West Building Lecture Hall, playing music by Barber, Ligeti, Mendelssohn, and Piazzolla (January 11, 6:30 pm). There will be a a pre-concert talk on Mendelssohn and the visual arts at 6 pm.

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