BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata No. 31 in Ab, op. 110. SCHUBERT Piano Sonata no. 21 in Bb, D 960. CHOPIN Nocturne in c#, op. posth • Menahem Pressler (pn) • BIS 1999 (SACD: 70:33)
SCHUBERT Piano Sonata No. 18 in G, Read more class="ARIAL12">D 894. MOZART Rondo in a, K 511. BEETHOVEN Bagatelles, op. 126 • Menahem Pressler (pn) • LA DOLCE VOLTA 12 (74:56)
Menahem Pressler, who turned 90 last December, is one of today’s most significant actively performing pianists. His career has spanned nearly 70 years and has included such achievements as the cofounding and development of the Beaux Arts Trio and a six-decade tenure in the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music’s piano department. His two latest recordings feature repertoire demanding of the most mature artistry—and it is refreshing to hear this repertoire performed by a pianist whose artistry is beyond dispute. It is not a qualification of my praise to say that I do not agree with every aspect of Pressler’s interpretation of the pieces on these two recordings; I find his playing a bit reserved and understated at certain moments. But it is clear that such moments are driven by intentional artistic choices on Pressler’s part rather than by any technical or interpretive shortcomings.
Of the two discs under review, I prefer the sound quality of the BIS recording, which is warm and clear, with enough microphone distance to create the effect of concert hall listening. The La Dolce Volta recording has a slightly richer sound but is sometimes a bit too resonant, creating occasional muddiness in the bass and excessive brightness in the high treble.
Pressler’s playing of Beethoven’s op. 110 emphasizes the Sonata’s geniality. His subtle rubato creates long, vocal phrases throughout the first movement, and he is attuned to the dramatic progression of the modulatory development section. His melodic lines are occasionally a bit too pastel in color, particularly when accompanied by brilliant figuration in the left hand, and the figuration itself is slightly uneven. But these are quibbles; Pressler’s ability to create and extend emotional tension through his sensitivity to harmony is quite gripping. Pressler takes an unusually gentle approach to the second movement, treating the outer sections melodically rather than percussively. I would prefer a bit more explosiveness in these passages, which Pressler provides in the middle section through his enthusiastic execution of Beethoven’s sforzandos. Pressler plays the three movements of the Sonata without pause. His timing between the first two movements works quite well, but I would have liked the final chord of the second movement to linger just a bit more before the third movement begins. The opening section of the third movement is beautifully dignified and operatic in scope, though slightly overpedaled. Particularly in the return of the arioso section, Pressler’s choice to forego the rests in the melody undermines Beethoven’s exquisite portrayal of sobbing grief. In the fugal sections, the subject is always clear and expressive, and the increase of tension is well-paced and effective. On the whole, Pressler’s is among the best recent performances of this Sonata that I have heard (though not a match for Schnabel’s iconic recording or Horszowski’s 1958 performance).
Pressler is one of a very few pianists to heed Schubert’s marking of pianissimo on the ominous bass trills that appear throughout the first movement of his final Piano Sonata. Schnabel’s 1939 recording is the only other to spring to mind, though this is perhaps the only aspect in which the two recordings are similar. Schnabel’s Schubert is impetuous and volatile; Pressler’s is a paragon of elegance and restraint. This is not to say that Pressler’s approach lacks emotion; indeed, the opening melody’s numerous appearances run the gamut from serenity to ecstasy to triumph. But pacing and structure are fundamental to Pressler’s performance; he maintains an overarching sense of direction throughout the movement’s development, and its formidable length never feels otiose. The second movement displays Pressler’s exquisite sensitivity to line, though the effect is occasionally marred by overpedaling and a tendency for the melody to be overbalanced by the bass. The Scherzo, like its counterpart in the Beethoven Sonata on this disc, achieves a sense of propulsion from well-articulated accents, but would benefit from just a bit more speed. The Finale is charming throughout, with an unusually wide range of expressive gestures.
The only weak performance on the disc is of Chopin’s posthumous Nocturne in c#. The opening measures, marked lento con gran espressione, are significantly over tempo and perfunctory in delivery. The remainder of the nocturne lacks drama and never reaches the extremes of dynamic contrast indicated by the score.
Pressler plays the opening measures of Schubert’s Sonata no. 18 in G with a gentle, serene lyricism equal to Brendel’s. His gradations among quieter dynamics, with clear differences between mezzo-piano, piano, and pianissimo, make for quite an intimate rendering of the opening movement, though I prefer Kempff’s explosive statements in the development. Pressler plays the second movement with folkish simplicity. The fortissimo chords that introduce the second theme are a bit slow for my taste, and the 32nd-note figuration that follows is rather plodding. However, the quieter moments of this movement are deeply expressive, with an effective balance between introspection and drama. Pressler plays the Minuet at a slightly slower tempo than many, but with enough rhythmic drive to create a sense of formal grace in the opening phrases and militaristic fury in the second section. The Trio is pleasingly sentimental. Pressler’s tempo in the Finale is a bit lethargic, though the lyrical moments in the movement are quite compelling, and the ending is gently endearing.
Pressler provides a subtle, intelligent reading of Mozart’s Rondo in A Minor. Considerably more introspective than Schnabel’s or Lili Kraus’s performance of this work, Pressler’s emphasizes warmth of tone and intensity of melodic development. By lingering slightly on the melody’s numerous accented non-harmonic tones, Pressler makes it clear how dissonant and visionary the piece must have seemed to Mozart’s contemporaries. Pressler brings a welcome sense of humor to the chromatic figuration in the second theme and plays the third section with expressive courtliness.
Perhaps the most impressive playing on this recording is of Beethoven’s Bagatelles, op. 126. Pressler’s rendering of the first Bagatelle is blissfully serene, with clearly-articulated melodic lines throughout. The performance of the second piece presents a fine contrast between the stormy toccata-like material and the gentle chorale material, though I find Pressler’s pedaling to be rather heavy in the latter. Pressler approaches the third piece with a Schumannesque tenderness. His playing of the fourth Bagatelle is quite extroverted, from the clipped sternness of the opening section to the wild syncopations that follow. The lyrical drone sections are warmly engaging. Pressler gives considerably less import to the fifth Bagatelle than Kempff or Schnabel do; he conceives of it as a pleasant respite between the weighty fourth and sixth pieces. This is a reasonable choice to make, but I prefer a more expressive approach to the piece. Pressler lends a fine sense of charm to the final Bagatelle, balancing its highly contrasting sections into a coherent whole. That said, Schnabel’s more extreme approach, embracing the contradictory emotional stances of the piece, strikes me as a more fitting culmination to the Bagatelles.
Both of these discs would be welcome additions to any collector’s library. Comprehensive scholarly program notes by Malcolm MacDonald on the BIS recording, and an extensive interview with Pressler as the notes to the La Dolce Volta release, are welcome bonuses.