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Eureka moments in keyboard sleuthing are no less thrilling in a follow-up to Menahem Pressler: Artistry in Piano Teaching (Indiana University Press, 2009): performance advice from the former pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio and legendary pedagogue.

Pressler is insightful and amusing in equal doses, as lionised astutely by his former student William Brown, himself a professor emeritus at Southwest Baptist University in Missouri. So, about the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No 31 in A-flat major Op 110, Pressler asks, ‘When [Beethoven] says “con amabilita” what do you think he means? Yes, with great tenderness and love but still with arm weight. It’s Beethoven, not Chopin; there’s more core to the sound.’

And in the Courante movement of Bach’s Partita No 6 in E minor BWV 830, we are informed: ‘It would be beneficial to play the lefthand alone, just the single notes, until they make some sense to you, until it’s like a picture for you. It must be clear; it must say something.’

Indeed, Pressler’s instruction may speak more clearly in such transcriptions than in previous years, as he notes that since he will be 96 this December, he no longer leaps to the keyboard to demonstrate for students how passages should be played: ‘Now that I have difficulty with walking, I don’t play in the classes that much, so I have to do it verbally, and that’s difficult; but I am willing, and I am happy to.’

Pressler’s candour is admirable. He avows, ‘There was a time in my life when Liszt played a great role, but now I find some of his rhetoric a little pompous. It’s true, and it’s actually because my wife disliked hearing me practice Liszt.’

To keep the tone cheerful, droll anecdotes are included in such vignettes as a page-turner who checked his watch each time he rose to perform his duty throughout a recital, until Pressler asked him: ‘Did you have to catch a train?’ Nor is he averse to being the butt of some jokes, as when he reveals that his teacher Egon Petri scolded him: ‘Why is your nose so close to the keyboard; does it smell good to you?’

A passion for pianism is the lasting aroma of this book, with such works as Ravel’s ‘Ondine’ and ‘Scarbo’ from Gaspard de la Nuit, and Valses nobles et sentimentales described as giving Pressler ‘some of the most intense emotional feelings of any composer; those feelings are emotional, are sexual. He is writing in a way that takes your whole being, becoming a partner with him.’ As he approaches his centenary, Pressler retains a legion of fans and students as partners in ongoing pianistic adventures.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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