Menahem Pressler

The leading German pianist, founder of the Beaux Arts Trio, gives his thoughts on today's piano whizzkids


You recently took part as a judge at the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition. Did you enjoy it?


Very much. The competition is run very beautifully, and the fortitude, the idealism, the knowledge and endurance of its founder Dame Fanny Waterman are astonishing. She really is a miracle. Listening to nine hours of piano playing in one day would tire anyone, but not her! It’s wonderful that there are people like her who do something that helps bring to the world such great new artists for the future. Even people haven’t won at Leeds have gone on to do very, very well.

What do you look for when you are judging a piano competition?

Personally, I look for a creative musician. I look for a poet, someone who will give us the magic that is inherent in the music in a way that it can still move people so many years after it was written.

We live in an age when records are broken. People run faster than ever, jump higher and further than ever. In piano playing too, I see it. We had a 14-year-old Chinese boy here at Leeds who played the Chopin Opp. 10 and 25 studies – these used to be seen as the four-minute-mile of piano playing! But the athletics of music is one thing – and necessary – but it’s not sufficient in itself. 

For me, the winner also needs musicianship, a knowledge of style and what the composer represents… and then that one thing that the great talents find inside the music: that one moment that when you hear it interpreted by them makes you a changed person for it. I rarely remember a whole performance from beginning to end, but I do remember a certain phrase that gave me happiness, satisfaction and a reason to be a musician.

Are today’s young pianists noticeably different from, say, 40 years ago?

I think so. The recording world has spoiled us to such an extent that we don’t listen with the same equanimity when someone makes a lot of mistakes. As a result, today’s artists are really required to practise harder – and we all do! However, there’s no doubt that many young pianists are putting technique ahead of musicality. This partly because technique is so much easier to teach! You can measure speed, you can measure the number of right notes… but it is much harder to measure beauty.

So, the change is fundamentally down to the teachers?

Some of our teachers have not performed themselves, and unless you go through that process in which you feel what creativity is all about, you can’t really teach it or give an example to students. So, it’s normal for a teacher to be able to hear the right notes, to know the style and relate to the performance practice – all the things that books can teach you and that common sense in studying music can tell you. But there are things that only a great artist can know – and even they sometimes can’t tell you what it is.

Is this where masterclasses are important?

I used not to believe in masterclasses, because I thought they gave too short a relationship between the player and teacher. But that’s not true. What is required is not a detailed lesson, but an opening, a door for a player, a chamber group or whoever. Once they feel what the teacher is aiming at, they will walk through that door. I have experienced it myself as a player.


Interview by Jeremy Pound