In Classical Piano Music, Everything Old Is New Again

Stuart Isacoff—performer, teacher, and critic—is out with a new book, A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE PIANO: THE INSTRUMENT, THE MUSIC, THE MUSICIANS–FROM MOZART TO MODERN JAZZ AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN. Isacoff begins with the instrument itself and with Mozart, whom he terms “the first piano superstar.”  After a whirlwind tour of the history of the piano, the book cycles back to Mozart when, in this excerpt taken from near the book’s close, Menaham Pressler races through Greenwich Village’s narrow streets in a taxi.

The diminutive, robust eighty six-year- old, one of classical music’s most revered performers, was on his way to a gig. That evening, he and clarinetist Richard Stoltzman were giving a joint recital at the former site of the Village Gate, the legendary club where jazz lovers once marveled at live performances by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, and Bill Evans. Now renovated into the smaller Le Poisson Rouge, a cabaret with the announced intentions of reviving “the symbiotic relationship between art and revelry,” it offers music of all genres, from classical to pop to avant-garde. The venue had become the hippest music stage in New York.

Pressler is a bullet train without brakes. Many younger colleagues who perform regularly with him have complained that they simply can’t keep up. He has just returned from Europe, performing at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, one of the finest concert halls in the world; and from Beijing, where he gave a week’s worth of master classes. He is in a category all his own, especially when it comes to chamber music (he was a founding member of the legendary Beaux Arts Trio, and remained its leader for nearly fifty- five years). Few others could boast of a lifetime achievement award from Gramophone magazine, or a Gold Medal of Merit from the National Society of Arts and Letters.

In 2005, he received two of the world’s highest cultural honors: the German Cross of Merit and France’s Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters. But now he was on his way to an informal Village haunt to give a program of Bernstein, Brahms, Debussy, Gershwin, and Reich— a trek that brings to mind Mozart navigating the cobblestones of Vienna, past rows of refreshment stands, courtyards, and taverns, to premiere his D minor Piano Concerto before a small audience at the Poisson Rouge of its day, the Flour Pit.

Of course, Mozart didn’t have the luxury of color spotlights over the stage, or an electronic sound system projecting and delicately balancing instrumental voices clearly throughout the room. Certainly no one in his time could have pulled off the intricate Steve Reich work for eight clarinets on this evening’s program in the way Richard Stoltzman regularly does, performing it single- handedly by playing one part along with seven prerecorded tracks.

But there are also similarities. Le Poisson Rouge represents both the very old and the very new look of classical music, offering relaxed musical celebrations in a space bustling with waiters and buzzing with expectation, where listeners can order a drink, enjoy a snack, and put their elbows on the table without fear of a reprimand.

All formality has been stripped away. After a brief introduction, the musicians begin, and as Bernstein’s jaunty rhythms and Broadway charm envelop the room, their sounds merge with the clink of ice cubes and the rustle of tableware. Listeners are nodding or tapping their feet. The stage is aglow, and Stoltzman’s clarinet, with a wireless microphone that clings to the instrument like a two- headed snake, suddenly looks like it is being squeezed from his face, which has assumed an unearthly grin. His eyes are closed, and Pressler’s head is bouncing left and right to the music’s syncopated rhythms. Sitting just feet from the stage, a listener feels like part of the ensemble.

In a solo turn, Pressler plays two selections from Claude Debussy’s Estampes. Even from the small, well- worn piano, his playing is graceful and warm.

Pressler is a musical caretaker, pursuing the exquisite sound at the core of each work, and bringing it to life with the shaping of a phrase or the weighting of a harmony. “The pianist who has a beautiful sound is like a good- looking person,” he once explained. “You immediately feel attracted. For many works, it’s essential— a reason for being. Someone playing Chopin with an ugly sound will have a very hard time making the form stand out, because in the end what really counts is the beauty that the composer put into the music. Even Beethoven, whose message is so strong it can bear a hard edge, put indications in his music like ‘tender.’ ” Indeed, this evening, each piano phrase sounds like a musical caress. “You know,” Pressler told a student, “when you are in love as I am with these pieces, they are always fresh. They are always young. I remember the first time I was thrilled by them, and I am thrilled by them today.”

But why would two stellar musicians used to the finest halls in the world be playing in a little Greenwich Village cabaret? “Wherever people want to hear us, that’s where we’ll go,” said Pressler just before walking on stage, and Richard Stoltzman nodded in agreement.

The scene at Le Poisson Rouge represents the future of classical music, as it resolutely dissolves the distance that has grown between player and listener. It is a replay of musical days gone by. Indeed, it reflects the state of the piano in the new era: Everything old is becoming new again.

Excerpted from A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE PIANO by Stuart Isacoff. Copyright © 2011 by Stuart Isacoff. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Copyright © 2018 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.

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