Pressing the keys with Menahem Pressler

by Gabrielle Lochard

Pianist Menahem Pressler offered a master class on March 30 in the Kirkland Junior Common Room, as part of the Learning From Performers series. Pressler, one of the founding members of the Beaux Arts Trio more than 55 years ago, coached Harvard undergraduates in music by Poulenc, Beethoven and Chopin. Within just the first hour, Pressler delivered enough insight to fill an afternoon, laced with good-humor and the ever-evident weight of a life spent as one of the world’s most preeminent musicians.

Violinist Keir GoGwilt ’13 and pianist Ben Woo ’13 kicked off the class with the first movement of the Poulenc Violin Sonata. The recurring theme in their coaching was balance. Pressler advised the students to consistently account for the natural imbalance in volume between the piano and violin, which in some cases was made more noticeable because, as he noted, "Poulenc himself writes some things quite badly. For instance, he sometimes writes piano for the violin while there is a forte for the piano – of course," he joked. "Poulenc played the piano."

The master class was as remarkable for the subtletly of Pressler's insight and the students' speed in applying it as it was for his anecdotal turns. In one such moment, he recounted how he and his trio had once asked Poulenc, over dinner, to write a piano trio for them. (Unfortunately, Poulenc was not inclined to write for the traditional piano trio instrumentation, so the piece never materialized.)

The next student in the class was pianist Kenric Tam ’12 with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 110. Pressler focused on how Beethoven’s markings might come to bear more prominently on Tam’s interpretation. "I liked some of the things you did very much," said Pressler. "For instance, the first movement is marked con amabilite, or lovingly, and that is how you played it, with a lot of love."

Pressler went on to explain the place of this sonata in Beethoven’s late works. "This sonata is very special among the late works," he said. "It is the penultimate sonata, but of the late sonatas, it is the only one to end triumphantly. It is an autobiography. It goes from an idealist in the first movement, to regret in the third movement, sorrow over the waste of time and the waste of thoughts. It ends in triumph, and at the end of the sonata, he might say that it was a life well spent, to which we have to say ‘Amen.’"

[Caption: Menahem Pressler listens during last Friday's Master Class through Learning from Performers. PHOTO: JACOB BELCHER/HARVARD OFA]

[Caption: Pressler instructs Rhed Shi '15 during Friday's Master Class. PHOTO: JACOB BELCHER/HARVARD OFA]