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Menahem Pressler (b. 1923) was confronted with tragedy of world-historical proportions as a teenager in 1939, forced to flee his native Germany after Kristallnacht. After his escape, he won the 1946 Debussy International Piano Competition in San Francisco and embarked on an awe-inspiring career that would span seven decades and bring him to every corner of the world. Pressler has been praised for chamber music, solo recitals, and remarkable milestones—like his Berlin Philharmonic debut at age 90!—or this memorable concert from 2018 Lisbon’s Pianomania Festival.
In Mozart’s sublime Concerto No. 23 and two moving, wistful encores, Pressler shows not just a mind-boggling technical proficiency for a nonagenarian, but also—and especially—a singular musicality. The highest point among many here is likely in the Mozart concerto’s slow movement, one of the most poignant in the entire repertoire.
Conducted by Leo Hussain—a “revelation in the pit” (Opera Today)—the Gulbenkian Orchestra opens the program with the dance suite for the opera Idomeneo, Mozart’s only contribution to ballet music, which follows the line of Lully, Rameau and Gluck. After Pressler’s curtain call, they close with Stravinsky’s colorful Petrushka (1947 revision), an electric work full of contrasts that heralded 20th-century composers’ quest to stretch the limits of tonality.