For more than five decades the name of Menahem Pressler, who has died aged 99, was synonymous with that of the Beaux Arts Trio, of which he was a founder member in 1955. Other players came and went, but Pressler alone remained as the linchpin of the ensemble until it was finally dissolved in 2008.
Over that period it gave countless performances and recorded the entire standard repertory of the piano trio, many in benchmark renditions. Then, at the age of 85, Pressler returned to the works for solo piano and for piano and orchestra that he had already begun to record in the early 1950s.
His belated debut with the Berlin Philharmonic, at the age of 90, playing Mozart’s G major Concerto, No 17, was with Semyon Bychkov in January 2014. Simon Rattle, present at the concert, was so moved by the performance that he arranged for Pressler to appear under his own baton in Mozart’s A major Concerto, No 23, in the same orchestra’s New Year’s Eve concert on 31 December that year.
With the other founder members of the Beaux Arts, the violinist Daniel Guilet and the cellist Bernard Greenhouse, he raised the profile of the piano trio to new heights. “We wanted to create a particular sound,” he later said, and sonic beauty and technical perfection were certainly hallmarks of their playing. But there was also a refined musical intelligence at work: three players of very different backgrounds forging a common identity.
Pressler’s sense of joie de vivre provided further inspiration for the ensemble. “We were on a quest for the bluebird of happiness,” he said: seeking to find beauty and enjoyment in music was central to their philosophy. As both ensemble and solo pianist, Pressler cultivated a style of extreme sensitivity and fastidiousness, with immensely subtle phrasing, articulation and voicing all serving to communicate his joy in making music to as wide an audience as possible.
Pressler radiated a sense of serenity: an appreciation of what he regarded as a blessed life. This despite a harrowing event in his earlier years, when he and his family were persecuted by thugs of the Nazi Sturmabteilung (SA) on Kristallnacht in November 1938.
Inside the family shop – a gentlemen’s outfitters – in his birth city of Magdeburg, they could hear the sounds of smashing and banging in the street before the perpetrators broke in. Despite the terror experienced by the 14-year-old, he remained of the opinion that “not all Germans were bad”: not the SA officers who later came to the aid of his brother when he fell off his bicycle and broke his leg, nor his own piano teacher, a church organist by the name of Kitzel.
The latter continued to teach him in secret, despite the danger to himself, and gave him much encouragement.
The family fled Germany the following year, first making for Trieste (where the boy received a package from Kitzel containing the music of Debussy’s Reflets dans l’Eau, which he urged him to practise) and then to Haifa, in Israel. His parents, brother, Leo, and sister, Selma, arrived safely, but his grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins all perished in concentration camps.
The trauma of the persecution caused a life-threatening eating disorder from which he recovered by taking inspiration from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in A flat, Op 110, whose idealism gave him the strength to continue.
Changing his name from Max Jacob to Menahem, which means “comforter” or “consoler”, he appeared at the age of 16 with the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (now the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra) but in 1946 left Israel for the US, where he won an international piano competition in San Francisco. A year later came his Carnegie Hall debut, at which he played, to considerable acclaim, Schumann’s Piano Concerto with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. He then toured North America and Europe for a number of years, playing concertos with leading orchestras.
The debut of the Beaux Arts Trio came in 1955 at the Berkshire music festival in Lenox, Massachusetts (now the Tanglewood music festival). In the same year Pressler began teaching at Indiana University, Bloomington, which he continued to do after the dissolution of the trio, maintaining a punishing schedule of performing and teaching.
In the US he rubbed shoulders with many distinguished exiles, among them Thomas Mann, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Oskar Kokoschka, Artur Schnabel and the film composer Franz Waxman, who accommodated him in Los Angeles.
As he later recalled in an interview with the Guardian, he was also invited to play in the house of Alma Mahler, the composer’s widow celebrated for her colourful lifestyle. “It was extremely hot, and I said to her, ‘Mrs Mahler, may I take my jacket off?’ She said, ‘Mr Pressler, as far as I’m concerned, you can undress completely.’”
Greenhouse was succeeded, after 32 years as the trio’s cellist, by Peter Wiley and then Antonio Meneses, while Guilet was replaced by, in turn, Isidore Cohen, Ida Kavafian, Young Uck Kim and Daniel Hope. The ensemble, in its various incarnations, appeared not only in the standard international concert halls but also in prestigious chamber music series, including those at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Library of Congress in Washington. The trio also expanded on occasion to five, six or eight players.
In addition to the wide-ranging catalogue of classic piano trios they performed, the ensemble occasionally tackled works by modernists such as Charles Ives. Works were also written for them by Ned Rorem, George Rochberg and David N Baker.
Pressler was married to Sara Scherchen from 1949 until her death in 2014, and they had two children, Amittai and Edna.
In 2016, following the death of Lord (George) Weidenfeld, his widow, Annabelle Whitestone, and Pressler began a relationship which continued until his death. She and his children survive him.
• Menahem (born Max Jacob) Pressler, pianist, born 16 December 1923; died 6 May 2023