Classical: When life itself is an achievement

Menahem Pressler's story is nothing so banal as rags to riches, but is both unexpected and inspiring
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The Independent Culture
A "star" chamber musician is almost an oxymoron: the whole point of such music is the sacrifice of ego for the common good. Yet the trio world has one undisputed star who, to affectionate applause at the Festival Hall in London, has just carried off Gramophone's Lifetime Achievement Award. "I find it hard to accept this," said the tiny, baby-faced figure, "because I still hope to live." Menahem Pressler had flown in that morning and, after downing his celebratory dinner, flew straight out again. As a teaching professor in Indiana, and leader of the Beaux Arts Trio - both of which jobs he has held for 43 years - he has no time to sit around and chat.

Last year, during a lull in the Van Cliburn piano competition in Texas, where he was on the jury, I persuaded this rara avis to tell his story, which turned out to be nothing so banal as rags to riches (his father was a well-to-do clothes merchant). It was, on the contrary, both unexpected and inspiring.

Born in Magdeburg in 1923, Pressler started playing the violin at six, and the piano soon after; his teacher was the local organist. All went well until the Nazi persecution kicked in, when he and his brother began to receive taunts in the street. "At that age, you get used to it; you assume it will just stop soon." But it didn't. "In 1938 we were barred from school, and it became difficult for the organist to be seen visiting our house. I began to feel more and more pressure." His inflections, I noted, were still quintessentially German. "Yes," he agreed, "that is ironic." In 1939 they fled to Trieste, whence they caught the last boat to Palestine. "But I felt the pressure more and more, and began to develop something strange. Every time a meal-time arrived, I could not eat. So, I became very, very thin."

So thin, in fact, that he fainted while playing a Beethoven slow movement during one of his early piano recitals. "Was it anorexia? I've no idea - it's all a blur now. Maybe I want to forget it. Or maybe I don't need to remind myself of it." But his career had started, alongside his day job in a grocer's shop. He made a name for himself in Israel by tackling the hardest pieces he could find, and then, hearing of a Debussy competition in San Francisco, he gatecrashed and won it.

His recording break came when MGM wanted to release the soundtrack of a film in which Artur Rubinstein played Schumann: since Rubinstein's recordings were owned by RCA Victor, MGM had to record the same music with a stand-in. Pressler stood in so impressively that MGM adopted him as its resident virtuoso.

Co-founding the Beaux Arts Trio was another accidental turning-point; the name was only a fill-in, but it now graces 75 records. "We learnt our craft giving badly paid concerts all over Israel. It was bloody, but somehow we found a way of playing together, of creating a face." That face has survived several changes in the string jobs, but if you listen to each combination - all available on Philips - you will find in their respective approaches a serene continuity, with Pressler its unchanging heart. Three years ago, Pressler was suddenly invited to give his debut solo recital at Carnegie Hall. "And I thought, this is ridiculous, at this point in my life. But I realised that if I didn't accept the challenge, it would only be because of fear." He consulted his wife and children, then went ahead and played, to tumultuous acclaim.

"It felt like a present from God - that the circle of life had been completed. That the hands still respond, and the brain is still there. Because, in music, it's not what you have been, but what you are."

FULL MARKS, then, to Gramophone for making this award - and for most of the others in this year's excellent crop. But you do sense an unhealthy symbiosis between it and the industry it exists to comment on. Consider Gramophone's strange custom of sending pre-publication proofs of reviews to the companies concerned. This is justified as a way of "ensuring accuracy". In the normal world, accuracy is what editors are employed to ensure, but this tight little world is not normal. Gramophone is still run by the family firm that has been in charge of it for 75 years, and the magazine has always tried to reconcile a critical stance with its policy of maintaining good relations with the record companies. But there must be times when those things are irreconcilable. Does that word "accuracy" never get stretched?

Never mind. In January next year, Gramophone will win itself more Brownie points by launching a world music quarterly called Songlines. Since the world music market is expanding by leaps and bounds - look at the shelves in your local record store - this is an eminently sensible ploy. But how typical that at the same time Radio 3 should be poised to axe its World Music programme, after condemning it to a late-night graveyard slot. This is yet another idiocy for Roger Wright to unscramble, when he takes over the helm.

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