A slight figure hunched over a cane takes the stage, yet there is the overwhelming feeling that one is in the presence of a great artist. This is Menahem Pressler, who at age 92 hardly seems to be dwindling his voracious musical appetite given the demanding program he presented at Symphony Center with a nearly spiritual reverence. Founding member of the fabled Beaux Arts Trio in 1955, he was the only one to remain in the trio until its disbandment in 2008. This remarkably sparked a renaissance in his career as a soloist, including a much-belated Berlin Philharmonic debut at 90 years old.

Menahem Pressler © Marco Borggreve
Menahem Pressler
© Marco Borggreve
Sunday afternoon’s recital opened with a pensive account of Mozart’s late Rondo in A minor, K511. The primary theme occurs in a myriad of guises, making the piece much less episodic than the standard classical rondo, and Pressler imbued it with a rich, tender legato. While his technique was imperfect, I was mostly struck by how well it had weathered the years along with his unfailing attention to detail and articulation. A brief section in A major was a bit more jovial, but the minor returned to leave us in a state of wistful nostalgia.

Schubert’s expansive Sonata in G major, D894 fleshed out the first half. It proved to be a lesson in the power of understatement, certainly apropos for a master of subtlety as Schubert. The opening chord, reminiscent of Beethoven’s concerto in the same key, was beautifully voiced and set the bucolic tone that would continue unabated for the next 40 minutes. Pressler elected to jettison the repeat of the exposition, a wise choice given his rather homogenous playing – an unfortunate pitfall one must avoid in order for the length of these works to truly be “heavenly” as Robert Schumann famously once put it. The development is the dramatic heart of the movement, but there was minimal differentiation from what had previously been heard.

Interestingly, the following movement offered some greater contrast between the aria-like opening and the stormy descending scales, albeit played at a fraction of their intended tempo. The minuet was also given at a very moderate tempo, although in some ways this served to elevate the minuet above the prosaic with its added weight and grandeur, and the delicate trio was utterly charming. Despite yet another plodding tempo choice, the finale was suitably playful. Pressler’s rapt attention to subtlety and nuance is what ultimately kept the performance from sounding purely dry and academic. One was hanging on for these fleeting moments of inspiration during which Pressler was truly in his element.

The second half was rather more varied, at least in terms of repertoire, opening a piece written expressly for him: Kurtág’s Impromptu al ongarese… to Menahem Pressler, dating from 2011, and it was endearing to see Pressler treat a contemporary work with the same loving care as the rest of the program. While the Hungarian element referenced in the title might not have been immediately apparent, it was an appealing miniature nonetheless, distilled to the essential and a vehicle for Pressler’s wondrous lyrical gift.

Debussy’s Estampes was given an indulgent romanticized reading, rather different from the exacting modernist take one might hear from the likes of Pierre-Laurent Aimard. The bell-like sonorities of Pagodes¸in its faux-oriental pentatonicism were especially striking, and the high point came with La soirée de Grenade, a dreamy evocation of Spain, a country that provided Debussy with endless fascination although he visited only once. Jardins sous la pluie was a bit under tempo and came across more mechanical than truly capturing the impressionistic haze suggested by the title.

A selection of three Chopin mazurkas followed. Tempos were relaxed and these dances were consequently more stately than folkish. Not entirely inappropriate for Chopin, however, and this proved to be quite effective in the elegiac A minor mazurka from Op.17. An affectionate performance of the Ballade no. 3 in A flat major concluded the program. Near the end, matters were muddied by over-pedaling and technical mishaps, but forgivable transgressions given that this came at the close of an arduous program for anyone, much less someone in their tenth decade. Pressler remained with Chopin for the lone encore, the posthumously published Nocturne in C sharp minor, played with the utmost delicacy and lyricism – a perfect end to the afternoon.