Spent a few chunks of time with Menahem Pressler last weekend – what a wonderful man and musician. He was here playing a recital and giving a master class for our piano students. I had almost forgotten that I first met him when I was a kid. The Beaux Arts Trio came to town to give a concert, and I was somehow picked to turn pages. I remember they rehearsed a Haydn trio before the concert. When they finished, I asked which repeats they’d be taking. Pressler laughed and said they were just reading through it together – they weren’t planning to perform it that night. Then he asked me what I played, and when I told him I was working on a Beethoven sonata, he asked which one, and of course I didn’t know the answer – I didn’t know how many there were or anything about opus numbers, etc. It’s not easy to look cool and be ignorant at the same time, but that was my default pose in those days, and I suppose I’ve had many years of practice since to refine it.

Last weekend, when Pressler found out that I was a composer, he regaled me with wonderful stories about his work with Kurtag, who he knew as a chamber coach before he knew him as a composer:

I saw him with a young quartet coaching Death and the Maiden. He spent two-and-a-half hours on the first 15 measures. When my trio commissioned a piece from him, he wrote a four-and-a-half minute composition. He then coached us twice on the piece – three-and-a-half hours each time! I loved it. We had an opportunity to commission him again, and our cellist said he’d need three bottles of whiskey just to get through the coachings.

Pressler’s recital on Saturday night was centered around Classical works written by composers at the ends of their lives, and it was easy to see that he is, at 83, assessing his own past and future. Mozart’s Rondo in A Minor, K. 511, Beethoven’s Sonata in Ab Major, Op. 110 and Schubert’s posthumous Sonata in Bb Major all present issues of scale and expression that would intimidate pianists ¼ his age. A packed house of young and old was suspended in edge-of-seat listening. Add a colorful rendition of Debussy’s Estampes and two encores, and you have a very generous night of substantial music-making, played on as high a level as one could wish.

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