Menahem Pressler: Clair de Lune
Many pianists interpret Debussy’s ‘Danseuses de Delphes’ with steady, stately and often placid calm. Not Menahem Pressler. He takes Debussy’s staccato markings literally in the first two measures, clipping the chords to unorthodox effect. At bar 11, Pressler begins to free up the basic tempo, which actually helps underline the music’s harmonic tension and varied dynamic levels. Further excerpts from the first book of Préludes prove no less revelatory. ‘Voiles’ is slow but never static, due to Pressler’s clear textural layering, with the repeated B flat left-hand pedal points providing a firmer than usual anchor. ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ is a marvel of exquisitely timed chords and eloquent lyrical deliberation. Pressler makes every gesture count throughout ‘La cathédrale engloutie’, where he generates a shattering, full-bodied climax. By contrast, the pianist’s deadpan characterisation of the tipsy swagger of ‘Minstrels’ cogently demonstrates how less is more.
Although Arabesque No 1, Rêverie, ‘The Little Shepherd’ and La plus que lent all receive sensitive and lovingly nuanced performances, ‘Clair de lune’ embodies Pressler’s most potent magic. His tempo is quite slow, yet one hangs on every note with bated breath, from Pressler’s perfectly placed pianissimos to the disembodied shimmer of his ever-so-slightly desynchronised chords.
Pressler brings often-ignored countermelodies to the fore in Ravel’s ‘Oiseaux tristes’, yet despite meticulous attention to details of articulation and phrasing in the Pavane, somehow the music bogs down as it progresses. By contrast, Fauré’s E flat Barcarolle benefits from Pressler’s fluid directness and virile melodic projection. The engineering is superb and lifelike, while the booklet notes feature Pressler in his own words, outlining his remarkable life story. In all, an auspicious Deutsche Grammophon solo debut for this young pianist – 94 years young, that is!