Sorry for moving out of California
Menahem Pressler : "I love crispy sausages"
Mr. Pressler, when you play the piano you have very expressive facial expressions: you grimace.
I always perk up my mouth in a weird way, sometimes I look like a goldfish.
Do you notice that?
No, I am absolutely focused. However, my facial expressions have already brought me into difficult situations: Once a woman was sitting next to me who was supposed to turn the pages. So you turn the page, in the wrong place. I turn the page back, then comes the point where it has to turn the pages, but it does not turn the pages. I was drenched in sweat.
Couldn't she read notes?
No. She just turned the pages when I nodded. Unfortunately, I often nod while playing.
Was that your worst moment on stage?
Oh not even. Once I had a very corpulent woman to turn the pages, she wasn't wearing a dress, but a kind of tent. Whenever she leaned forward to turn the pages, the wide fabric fell on the keys. I didn't know where my hand was or where the notes were.
Daniel Barenboim once said that what he learned at the age of 25 stayed with him. But he couldn't memorize two bars of a piano concerto that he didn't rehearse until he was 40.
I am surprised that Barenboim should have said that, he has the best memory of all of us. It's phenomenal what scores he has in his head. But he's right: I played the “Hommage à Schumann” this morning, a piece that György Kurtág wrote for me and the Beaux Arts Trio. It used to fly to me, this time it was difficult for me.
You practiced again this morning even though you only had a concert last night?
It doesn't work without practice. I went to bed at half past one last night, this morning at 8:30 a.m. I practiced. Unfortunately only an hour and a half.
It is said of Daniel Barenboim that he does not like to practice.
I know. Sometimes it sounds like that too. He's great, I adore him, I played with him when he was only 14. He is a genius, he can do more than any of us, both as a conductor and as a pianist. But if you don't practice, you can't play anymore. It's like your car is out of oil.
You were the head of the best piano trio in the world for 53 years. Have you regretted having decided against a solo career?
No way. I had a choice. In 1955, when the Beaux Arts Trio was founded, I was a soloist for ten years. But I felt that when we play together, something very special happens. The chemistry was right, this feeling of inspiration.
But you had to put your own ego on hold.
Those who do not fit into an ensemble cannot empathize deeply with a work of art. You always have to reset your ego. It is not the work that beautifies you like a dress, but you as a servant beautify this work.
You represent a generation of pianists who did little to stage themselves. A young pianist like Lang Lang is seated in a waterfall to play on a glass grand piano.
It's not his fault for being put in a waterfall! Besides that, he gets paid very well. And he is lucky that a barenboim wants to teach him. Lang Lang is a lovely boy, I know him very well, he has wonderful hands. But it doesn't have that which really leads deep into a work. That's what Barenboim can show him.
Can you even learn that?
You have to have it and learn to activate it. There are people who stutter, but they have something important to tell. And there are people who speak wonderfully, but the only result is cocktail talk.
The second level is missing.
The great plain. Artur Schnabel didn't play perfectly technically, neither did Alfred Brendel and Radu Lupu. Vladimir Horowitz, he was technically phenomenal, but perfect? No. It's not technical perfection that makes them so wonderful - it's their inspiration.
You are famous as Menahem Pressler. But your real name is Max.
Yes, Max was my nickname as a child.
You were born in Magdeburg and lived there with your parents and siblings until you were 15.
My parents had a clothing store there, especially men's clothing. It was very close to the Old Market, in Buttergasse, but it no longer exists today. It wasn't a very big business; my parents had maybe three or four employees.
Do you remember November 9, 1938?
Yes, my parents' business was destroyed that day. The windows were smashed, the things torn out. Signs had already been hung on the door beforehand: “Do not buy from Jews”. We sat at home and were scared. A feeling that I never felt again later.
You were a student at the time.
No more. I was actually a student at the boys' grammar school, but I wasn't allowed to go there anymore.
Do you remember how you were discriminated against in school?
I only know that we thought: this can only be temporary, it has to go away again. I prefer to remember good things: my piano teacher, who was the organist in the church and continued to teach me, although that was not allowed. Or to an SA man who was looking after my brother when he fell on his bike and broke his foot.
You escaped to Palestine with your parents and siblings via Italy. Did you take your grades with you on the run?
I hardly had any grades. But I took my own compositions with me. I even took lessons in Trieste while we were waiting for the ship to Palestine. And on the ship I played at the Captain’s Dinner.
Was playing the piano itself an escape for you?
Without doubt. The piano saved my spirit and gave my life a purpose. It made me forget a lot. My siblings often say: “What, don't you remember?” They are younger than me.
Much of your family was killed in the Holocaust.
My grandparents, my uncles ... my father's brother was a wonderful tenor. When his wife was evacuated, he went to this camp or whatever it was and said: take me, let my wife out. They kept him there too. Your child, my cousin, survived. After the war he came to us in Palestine.
You gave your first concert in Germany in the mid-1950s. Have you hesitated to return to the country that did such cruelty to your family?
Not really. Back in the 1950s, many other Jewish artists were not ready to travel to Germany. However, I decided to donate the money I earn in Germany to Israel. It was my wife's idea. I am still donating money to the State of Israel today.
When did you drop your German name?
When I was 17 when I went to San Francisco for the Debussy competition. At that time, many emigrants in Israel changed their names. Only my wife sometimes calls me Max.
You won the competition and your international career began. How did you get from Tel Aviv to San Francisco - that was an unbelievable distance in 1940?
From Tel Aviv to Cairo, then by plane from Cairo to Athens and on and on with stopovers to New York. And then it was a three-day train ride from New York to San Francisco.
To this day you are constantly on the move: yesterday you played in Toulouse, today you give interviews in Hamburg, tomorrow morning you are flying to the USA.
After my arrival there I have a concert in my hometown Bloomington, Indiana, two days later I play in Los Angeles, three days later in Vancouver, then in New York.
You do not suffer from jet lag and sit at the piano without glasses. How is it that you are so fit?
My doctor says: God has forgotten me. My fitness program? Well, I walk from Gate 15 to Gate 20 or from Terminal E to Terminal B. When time is short, I have to blow hard. I've even given two concerts on one day: first in Hong Kong, then in Pittsburgh. Because of the time difference, I was able to start in the evening after the concert and be there in time for the next concert on the same day. I play and play - that keeps me fit.
Mick Jagger weighs three kilos less than before after a concert. You sit more than Jagger, but do you also lose substance when you perform?
Of course it's very exhausting. And even though I'm sitting, I'm physically active. The difference between me and Jagger is: I am particularly challenged emotionally.
It is also challenged musically, but I mean the inspiration you need when you go deep into a masterpiece. The songs Jagger sings aren't masterpieces. They are nice, some are wonderful and definitely very popular. But if you play Schumann or read Goethe, if you get involved in things that are among the most beautiful things that the human spirit has produced - then that eats you up. That goes very deep.
Anne-Sophie Mutter says that when she plays Beethoven, she thinks about his fate and how he slowly became deaf. You have also just recorded Beethoven.
He must have suffered terribly from those quacks who fumbled at his ear. But his music has nothing to do with it. Beethoven was never deaf in spirit. When I play, I only think about what he has to say. It expresses something so powerful that it reaches the highest level that the human mind can understand. When I am in good shape and give a concert, I see and feel what I have never seen or felt before.
Sounds like a frenzy.
That can be a frenzy. But, and this is the difference to an amateur, the musician always has a red lamp in his head that warns him: You must not exaggerate!
After your success in San Francisco, you studied in California.Did you meet other German emigrants there?
Of course. I was often a guest at Franz Waxman's in Hollywood ...
... the film composer by Alfred Hitchcock ...
... and I had an hour there every week with Bruno Walter, one of the greatest conductors of all. I met Thomas Mann once in a concert, Mahler's 8th Symphony. Incidentally, I also met Mahler's widow, Alma Mahler-Werfel, in California ...
... who was in a relationship with some famous men: Gustav Mahler, Oskar Kokoschka, Walter Gropius, Franz Werfel. Did she still turn the heads of all men back then?
Only the important one! Seriously, she was already an elderly lady. Franz Waxman had arranged for me to play for her. It was terribly hot at home. So I asked her if I could take off my jacket. And she: "You can undress completely if you want." But that was probably just a joke.
You spent your childhood in Germany, your youth in Israel, and have lived in the USA since 1955. Which country do you call your home?
In principle all three. 50 years in the US is a lot. But you can't forget where you were born. I love crispy sausages and dark bread, I always spoke German with my children. And what Israel did for me is unforgettable. That was a salvation in every way. The existence of Israel gives me strength. I know that I can no longer be displaced.
Because you know that Israel will always take you in?
I'll explain it to you like this: I was once in Italy and my wallet was stolen on the train. Fantastic, this man, he must have had magic hands, he could have played Debussy better than me! Since then, I've always had to grab the back of my trouser pocket and make sure that my wallet is still there. And I am relieved when I feel it. Now transfer that to life and you will know what Israel means to me.
You have recorded 62 records with the Beaux Arts Trio. Violinist and cellist have changed, you always sat at the piano.Don't you regret having to break up the trio this year?
Yes and no, 53 years is a long time, and the wonderful thing is that we broke up at the highest level. Our violinist, Daniel Hope, wants to concentrate on his solo career. I don't want to introduce a new violinist.
Mr Pressler, you will be 85 years old in December. How does making music change in old age?
In old age you gain what you actually need. My wife is no longer what she was when I married her - she was young, beautiful, with red hair. But in old age love is deeper, friendship is added and a deep understanding, that is something very beautiful. And it is the same with music.
Menahem Pressler, 84, became world famous as the pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio. He grew up in Magdeburg. He fled to Palestine with his family in 1939; today he lives in the USA. On November 7th he will play in the chamber music hall of the Philharmonie, two days later at a benefit concert at Tempelhof Airport.
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