Menahem Pressler plays Beethoven Opus 110 & Schubert D960 [BIS]

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Piano Sonata in A flat, Op.110
Piano Sonata in B flat, D960
Nocturne in C sharp minor, Op.posth.

Menahem Pressler (piano)

Recorded February-March 2012 in Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, England

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: December 2013
CD No: BIS-1999 [CD/SACD]

And high-resolution download from
Duration: 71 minutes



Menahem Pressler – who turned 90 on December 16 – was a founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio and is primarily known as a chamber-music player. However, after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939 he forged a successful career as a soloist in the USA, and never completely abandoned such work. The Trio disbanded in 2008 and since then Pressler has been appearing again in concerts and recitals and also giving masterclasses.

His list of solo recordings is relatively small, so one can only hope – given the quality of the playing on this release – that this BIS disc will be the first of many. Pressler was taught in an age when giants such as Rachmaninov, Josef Hofmann, Cortot and Horowitz ruled supreme, so you would expect him to have absolute command of every aspect of expressive piano technique. Whichever passage you listen to, there is entirely natural rubato and tempo change – often within an unfashionably relaxed basic pulse – superb pedal and rhythmic control, beautifully judged dynamic variation, and an absolute command of touch. He isn’t as quixotic or interventionist as some pianists of his generation (this might be down to playing in a more corporate style as a chamber musician) but there is a sense of patrician authority underlying every bar.

In the opening Moderato cantabile molto espressivo of Opus 110, Pressler ensures that the right-hand’s melody that starts at bar 9 and recurs throughout the movement never sounds too hard or dominant, he observes the molto legato marking at bar 20 (not always the case with others) and then captures superbly every change of mood and texture, although the trills are a little uneven. The Allegro molto scherzo is taken at a measured tempo, which allows Pressler to emphasise its violent angularity and, at the same tempo, he observes the trio’s sf, forte and pianissimo markings, albeit the fingering sounds slightly stiff here. He also makes unusually clear the way in which the repeated chords of the codetta anticipate those that announce the final fugue. Pressler then plays the Adagio with real spirituality (a word that seems to have gone out of fashion) and observes the six tempo changes in the following five bars. His style in both fugues is reminiscent of Rudolf Serkin, who also had absolutely no interest in impressing the listener by playing as fast or as loudly as possible; instead the voices and rhythmic patterns are laid bare in totally uncompromising fashion at a steady tempo.

In the first movement of the Schubert, Pressler similarly clarifies the textures while inserting numerous pauses and tempo-changes within a moderate basic speed, uses a wide range of dynamics, convincing rubato, makes sparing use of the sustaining pedal, and observes the exposition repeat. The transition to the development is magical; there is a sense of conversation between the hands, of continuous ebb and flow, and each transformation of the two main themes brings different tonal and emotional shading, which enables Pressler to mould the line in a way that is now almost forgotten. The tempo for the Andante sostenuto is again measured, never once does Pressler rise above piano in the opening and closing sections, nor does he make any change of tempo for the first and second subjects and takes an unusually gentle approach to the turbulent central episode.

It will probably come as no surprise to hear that the tempo for the scherzo is relaxed, which means that the gear change for the trio is minimal and there is absolutely no hint of frivolity. The finale displays rhythmic clarity and a very clear and serious presentation of the thematic material, with some wonderful changes of dynamic, slight pushes and pulls to the tempo, and a didactic account of the coda, which is taken in tempo, not Presto as marked. As an encore there is a rapt performance of a Chopin Nocturne, and here you could be listening to Solomon. The pause, ritardando and diminuendo before the first theme returns and the gorgeous arabesques, really do belong to a pianistic world that is – alas – gone.

Recently the big three production companies – Universal, Sony and Warner – announced that they would be moving into the 24bit high-resolution download market, so since this release was made available for review in both SACD format and as a 24bit, 96kHz Flac download, it seemed sensible to compare them. Compact Discs are usually 16bit, 44 kHz and even if the recording was made in 24bit, it has to be converted to the lower bit-rate because compact discs can’t handle higher resolution files (DVDs can, but that’s a different matter). You can however download such files, and as long as you have a DAC that will not only up-sample, but replay them in the high resolution format, you can listen to them unadulterated. The big question is, how much difference does it make?

Listening to the disc first, the image is well controlled, there is no undue reverberation (not always the case with SACD), a reasonable dynamic range, the registers are well-integrated, the piano has excellent body and the overall balance is nicely middle-distance. Turn to the Flac file and you realise that the silver disc has constricted the piano image, in effect flattened it. There is more space around the instrument, definition is better, the dynamic range wider, pedal use is easier to hear, and the timbre and resonance of the instrument has been far better captured. In effect the instrument comes alive. The sound is not perfect, when compared to Garrick Ohlsson playing Charles Tomlinson Griffes on a Hyperion high-res download, for the BIS lacks its marvellous dynamic range. But in answer to the original question, yes, there is a very definite difference in quality.

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