The man himself has never considered age an issue, yet yesterday in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw the matinee was nevertheless a birthday celebration. Coincidentally sharing the same birthday with Conductor Trevor Pinnock, Menahem Pressler turned 90 the day of their first rehearsal – December 16 (with Beethoven also weighing in according to baptismal records) – working with the orchestral ‘birthday boys’ of 2013, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, a vibrant 125 years young. It was Pressler’s début with the orchestra, at 90! Then again, that is rather par for his course: his solo piano début at Carnegie Hall was at 72. The founder pianist of the renowned Beaux Arts Trio has made it a habit of reinventing himself at unexpected moments throughout a career that shows not the slightest sign of age.

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra © Simon Van Boxtel
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
© Simon Van Boxtel

Yesterday was simultaneously a celebration of special relationships: Pressler’s with the Amsterdam public, Pinnock’s with a city known for decades as a Mecca for early music, and the Orchestra’s with repertoire that for a very long time was a much debated aspect of its heritage. Willem Mengelberg fed the Concertgebouw on Bach and Mozart early on, however it took some significant upheavals in the last century to get baroque and early classical repertoire back on music stands with regularity. Hospitality for well known conductors from the once isolated world of authentic performance practice also took time. 

Trevor Pinnock was a perfect pick for this subtle combination of bustling C.P.E. Bach and mature Mozart. He brought out only 25 strings to lead the Bach standing behind a lidless harpsichord Italian style which he deftly struck for well placed accents inbetween elegant gestures that guaranteed swift tempi and long lines. This was well whipped cream complete with a glistening cherry! The RCO strings were visibly enjoying themselves: their alert and transparent sound so perfectly suited to their hall’s magnifying glass acoustics.

Trevor Pinnock © Peer Lindgreen
Trevor Pinnock
© Peer Lindgreen

It took a while to safely park the harpsichord and bring its descendant, the Steinway concert grand up onto the stage, but when Menahem Pressler subsequently appeared from the side - avoiding the treacherous descent down the Main Hall’s stairs - the public embraced him with love and recognition. His début with the orchestra, yes, but he has been engaging the Amsterdam public in a singular, special relationship on an annual basis, not only with sold out Beaux Arts Trio concerts but in a series of master classes and concerts with young Dutch talent, his dedication to the great masterpieces consistently shining through both notes and public teaching. Pressler was at his very best yesterday, bringing silver sparkles and rich spices to every note in Mozart’s last piano concerto, Piano Concerto no. 27, K595. Pressler has expressed his ambition to go down in history as the world’s softest pianist, inspiring Pinnock, strings (now augmented to 33) and winds to an accompaniment that was true chamber music in its attentive detail. Pinnock is an elegant maestro who anticipates and enables, supporting Pressler’s delicate and free performance of the concerto’s first movement.

Menahem Pressler © Marco Borggreve
Menahem Pressler
© Marco Borggreve

The first solo measures of the second movement were breathtaking: sonority straight from the fingers with just the slightest touch of pedal. Silver trills: Pressler’s signature. The balance between left and right hand was expert, setting the tone for a picture perfect balance between Steinway and orchestra. Bravo for strings and especially for the winds who have long unisons in their accompaniment (at pianissimo!): all perfectly executed with a particular tenderness clear from Pinnock’s every gesture. Taking advantage of an acoustic that inspires subtleties, the last notes of the first two movements were so soft, one wondered, were they played or did they drop from the heavens?

The ovation was astounding, drawn out, overwhelming, a release of the attention that such subtle performance demands. Truly, you could hear a pin drop until the final chords when the hall erupted. Pressler awarded this love-fest with a solo encore as is his charming habit. 

After the intermission we transcended from silver and spice to gold and milk chocolate. Trevor Pinnock performed an elegant “Linz” Symphony no. 36, K425: pure optimism, holiday cheer and birthday ebullience. With 44 strings now symmetrically surrounding him, the sound was sumptuous, the articulation, alert. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra anno Jubilee 2013: well versed in all authentic details without any loss of romantic richness.

In this age of celebrity, flamboyant keyboard gymnasts, it was heartwarming to enjoy two erudite keyboard masters who know that purity of intention and inspired execution are what great music is all about. Perhaps that depth of knowledge does come with a certain age.

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