BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 31; SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata No. 21 in B-flat; CHOPIN: Nocturne in c# – Menahem Pressler, p. – BIS

BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat, Op. 110; SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata No. 21 in B-flat, D 960; CHOPIN: Nocturne in c#, Op. Posth. – Menahem Pressler, p. – BIS multichannel SACD 1999, 70:33 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

I think I have seen Menahem Pressler three, maybe four times in my life, each with his stellar ensemble, the Beaux Arts Trio, which set the standard for piano trio performances worldwide for many years. They were a model of elegance and energy, wide-ranging repertory and versatility. Pressler himself continues to perform in chamber settings, and more likely, as a soloist, while maintaining a teaching schedule at Indiana University where he has taught for 60 years—quite an accomplishment. But the recently-turned 90-year-old has seemingly lost nothing to age—only Earl Wild comes to mind as another phenomenal player who was able to maintain such perfection in his art almost to the day he died. Pressler, from the sound of this recording, needs to embark on Beethoven and Schubert complete projects immediately. I doubt this will happen as the recording process can be arduous, and I doubt he has any interest in such an undertaking, but I do hope BIS will give him anything he wants, because if the quality is anything like this disc we could have quite an historical collection on our hands when all is said and done.

This was actually taken down at Potton Hall in Suffolk, England, back in late winter of 2012, and the sound is miraculous. Hard as I tried, I could not find any flaws in it. Every piano recording has them—the highs and lows of the instrument, plus the quality of the artist’s touch, dynamic range, and the evenness of the instrument from top to bottom, aside from the varied hall conditions that effectively mask the true sound of the instrument. This recording is simply brilliant from top to bottom, and grants Pressler a stunning tonal aura that captivates on every track.

And speaking of tracks, this recital gives us some top notch ones. The Beethoven, with its finale heavy fugue and stunning lyrical propensities, is his penultimate piano creation that launches us into the world of the sublime, and Pressler, sensing this intuitively, makes every moment of this miracle count—I can think of few recordings as convincing as this one. And the Schubert—my goodness, what line and phrasing, almost endless in the long-winded and gloriously-spun melodies. This last sonata of his, classically structured but providing a suspicious veneer under which the most incredible melodic manipulations are taking place, has only recently—meaning in the last 80 years or so—taken its place as something equal to Beethoven’s last piano sonatas. Pressler plays it as one who has studied and studied and contemplated and lived with the music for a long time, and the results are a reading of such insight and perfection that this easily becomes one of the top two or three recordings available.

The afterthought Chopin is nicely played, fine filler to a well-filled album full of wonderful surprises and first-rate performances. A must-have issue.

—Steven Ritter

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