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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
From: Deux Arabesques, L. 66
No. 1 Andante con moto [5:27]
Rêverie, L. 68 [5:24]
From: Suite bergamasque, L. 75
Clair de lune [6:14]
From: Children's Corner, L. 113
The Little Shepherd [3:15]
La plus que lente, L. 121 [5:53]
From: Préludes / Book 1, L. 117
Danseuses de Delphes [3:49]
Voiles [5:01]
La fille aux cheveux de lin [3:11]
La cathédrale engloutie [7:33]
Minstrels [2:33]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Barcarolle No.6 in E Flat Major, Op.70 [5:30]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Pavane pour une infante défunte, M.19 [7:45]
From: Miroirs, M.43
Oiseaux tristes [5:16]
Menahem Pressler (piano)
rec. 2017, Salle Rémy Pflimlin, Conservatoire national supérieur de musique et de danse de Paris
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 8756 [66:51]

Menahem Pressler is best known for many today as pianist and founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio, but after escaping from Nazi Germany in 1939 his early solo career was set for success after winning first prize at the Debussy International Piano Competition in San Francisco in 1946, followed by a successful American debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy. The Beaux Arts Trio was only started after a decade of performing as a soloist, but this launched a chamber music career of nearly 55 years. If career distinction was measured by longevity alone Pressler would very much reside at the top of the heap as an active performer at 91, but with heaps of awards and distinctions, innumerable recordings and concerts and a remarkable position as a leading educator, this is a musician who is a living legend and incomparable in terms of his achievements.

This programme of French piano music is therefore like receiving a box of liqueur chocolates, the contents of which have been extravagantly sourced from rare vintages. Pressler’s own booklet note for this recording gives historical background to his association with Debussy, tracing a direct line to the composer via his “first real introduction” to the composer from pianist Paul Loyonnet, who had studied with Charles de Bériot; “Ravel’s piano teacher – and Isidor Philipp. During his years at the Conservatoire, he had heard Ricardo Viñes, a former student of Bériot, who had premiered many works of his friends Debussy and Ravel…” Pressler’s lessons with Loyonnet “opened a new world… In short, I learned how to read the music of the French composer.”

This, then, is the sort of recording that invites us to beg, borrow or steal the scores and learn from Pressler’s example. You can of course just lean back and enjoy, but I suspect even casual listeners with even a passing familiarity with some of this repertoire will be forced to pay attention. Pressler’s “strict respect” of Debussy’s markings can result in some effects we’re not used to hearing today. There is for instance a staccato (separated) notation over the chords at the beginning of Danseuses de Delphes which sounds very different to any recording I’ve previously heard. Similar is true of the opening to Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte; a demonstration of how to play with limpid and lyrical tranquillity while observing pointillist dryness at the same time. It will be intriguing to hear if this has any effect on future performers keen on striving for authenticity. This programme is full of details like this – pedalling that lingers a little longer than you might expect for instance, resulting in the unexpected meeting of certain notes, and raising the atmospheric stakes in something like Voiles, through which the marking ‘Dans un rythme sans rigeur et caressant’ takes us into ever further, immersive realms of impressionist colour. Minstrels is perhaps the most quirky of the interpretations here, but it all works eloquently.

This is quite an introvert programme by its very nature, but you probably wouldn’t imagine Menahem Pressler launching into Liszt at this stage in his career. These French pieces are all works for which he clearly has deep feeling and a lifetime of experience. Making comparisons with other recordings seems misplaced in this case, as this is more the type of experience from which we each undergo our own little transformation and move on, educated and appreciative. Other pianists can see if they measure up to something like Pressler’s magnificent La cathédrale engloutie, which is as moving and rich in imagery as any I’ve come across. The piano sound is close, but rich and clear. There might have been a case for giving a little more distance to help these impressionist sounds blend, but at the same time it seems equally valuable to be up close and personal, and able to hear exactly how the magic is done.

Dominy Clements


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