Book Review: Master Classes with Menahem Pressler by William Brown
William Brown has once again made a valuable contribution to the piano world, thanks to his thorough research on the life and teachings of his mentor. Brown's efforts produced so much material when he wrote Menahem Pressler: Artistry in Piano Teaching, that he had enough remaining to compile a second book, Master Classes with Menahem Pressler. This book is an outstanding resource for the serious pianist. Brown presents meticulous notes collected from 160 former Pressler pupils, as well as musical scores and recordings. He conveys Pressler's pedagogical approaches to thirty-six masterworks, ranging from Handel's Chaconne and J. S. Bach's sixth Partita, through Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Rachmaninoff, et al., onward to Prokofiev's Sonata No. 4 and the Barber Sonata. There are many score excerpts in the book, but it is necessary to have the complete scores at hand to study all of Pressler's measure-by-measure instructions. Some comments pertain to practical matters such as dynamics, fingering, or redistribution of hands; other times he delves into aesthetic issues regarding line, harmony, and how to understand and realize the composer's intentions.
It is hard to find any flaw in this book, but at times I would have found it helpful to know the levels of the students he was teaching; this would have provided more context for his remarks. Pressler states in the prologue, "Because I have continued looking for whatever it is that makes for a richer life in music, I want that second book to be a partner for all the students who are reading it to find a way into that musical heaven that I'm still looking for and hoping to find."1
Prior to the examination of each piano work, Pressler expresses his thoughts on its composer. How remarkable these glimpses are! I wanted to share a few meaningful quotes, but it is too difficult to extract a small part from the whole. The essays are powerful, revealing his profound and intimate thoughts on the giants of music. The book also includes a group of significant photos of Pressler, along with a "family tree" of his musical ancestors.
Pressler contributed many interesting stories to Brown's book, which are included in sections entitled "Interludes." They illustrate many aspects of Pressler's personal life, from the humorous to the tragic. Also represented are some outlandish tales of his musical life pertaining to pianos, piano tuners, page turners, and travel disruptions. It is kind of him to share humbling stories about the early days to which many less-famous musicians can relate. Can you imagine the members of the Beaux Arts Trio eating their dinner from a vending machine before a concert? How about being told repeatedly that you are playing too loudly in the ensemble, so that you stop playing entirely, only to be told that you are still too loud?
I commend William Brown for his meticulously researched work, as well as the compelling way in which he organized the material. I hope that future generations will study this book well, preserving Menahem Pressler's lasting contributions to the world of piano music. (Indiana University Press, hardback $45.00, 225 pages; electronic format also available)
1 William Brown, Master Classes with Menahem Pressler (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2019), xi.
JULIE MILLER has taught piano in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Michigan, California, Louisiana, and New York. She is a staff pianist at the Crane School ofMusic (SUNY Potsdam) and editor at Lorica Press, specializing in the music of Keith Gates.