In the world of chamber music, the piano trio is an ungainly threesome-an incestuously linked couple (violin and cello) in bed with a powerful alien (piano). The challenge of the form is to maintain an equilibrium that prevents the engagement from becoming a contest of two against one (or one against two) and allows each of the participants to share equally in the fun. The literature for piano trios may be less rich in masterpieces than that for the string quartet, but it’s broad and varied, ranging from the witty classicism of Haydn and Mozart to the brooding romanticism of Brahms and Tchaikovsky, to the rambunctious modernism of Ives and Shostakovich. No matter what the period, the players must be exquisitely attuned to one another and capable in equal measure of tact and boldness.
What began as a pastime for amateurs in the 18th century developed, during the next century, into a forum for virtuosos. The piano trio has brought out the collaborative best in such towering soloists as the pianists Alfred Cortot and Arthur Rubinstein, the violinists Jacques Thibaud and Jascha Heifetz, and the cellists Pablo Casals and Gregor Piatigorsky. (The Cortot/Thibaud/Casals 1926-27 recording of Beethoven’s Archduke Trio remains, for me, the gold standard of the genre.)
During the past half century, one ensemble has been preeminent-the Beaux Arts Trio, which, by any reckoning, has to be the most robust piano trio of all time, having chalked up at least 6,000 performances in its 49 years of existence and having recorded some 60 discs (mostly for the Phillips label), dozens of which remain in the catalog. Two of the group’s original members are no longer playing, but the original pianist is still going strong. He is Menahem Pressler, who in addition to performing with the trio 70 times a year, maintains a career as a concert soloist and a busy schedule as a piano pedagogue at the University of Indiana. He recently turned 80, in honor of which the Concert and Lectures Series at the Metropolitan Museum has been presenting him under his various hats, and when I recently dropped in on him to see how he and his current trio are doing, I was flabbergasted.
We met around noon at the Buckingham Hotel in midtown, where Mr. Pressler greeted me with the sunny energy of a man who might have just enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and a relaxing massage. (In fact, he had put in two and a half hours of practicing for the evening’s performance at the Met.) Round-faced, with eyes as searching as Peter Lorre’s, he stands scarcely more than five feet tall. Once we had settled ourselves in a lounge on the second floor, he launched into the story of the founding of the Beaux Arts, unfazed by some very intrusive jazz that was audible through a speaker in the ceiling.
“The whole thing began wonderfully by chance,” he said. “We never expected to become a trio .” The year was 1955 and, at the age of 32, Mr. Pressler was embarked on an important solo career, having won first prize in the Debussy International Piano Competition, in San Francisco in 1946, as a 23-year-old from Israel. (He and his family had fled Germany in 1939.) “I was making records for MGM and, when I suggested recording some piano trios by Mozart, my producer said O.K.-but I didn’t have a trio. My wife and I were living in the Peter Stuyvesant Hotel, where a lot of musicians lived because of the thick walls. A neighbor suggested that I call Daniel Guilet, who was Toscanini’s concertmaster in the NBC Symphony. Daniel then asked Bernard Greenhouse, who was a cellist with the Bach Aria Group, to join us. We began rehearsing, but then I decided to go back to Israel for a teaching position that would support my concert career. Two months later, Daniel called and said that we’d been asked to fill in for another trio, the Albaneri, at the Berkshire Music Center, which is now Tanglewood.
“We gave our first concert on July 13. Afterward, Charles Munch [the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra] said, ‘I haven’t heard such playing since Cortot, Thibaud and Casals.’ Pretty soon we had 70 more concerts, mostly in small towns. We got paid $300 a night-that’s for the whole trio-and our rehearsals were bloody because Daniel was the only one who had any experience playing with a world-class chamber group [the Calvet Quartet]. We traveled in one car and played six nights a week. Bernie said, ‘It’s like a marriage, but with all the disadvantages and none of the advantages.’ But in the end, it was worth it. You learn to live together, you learn to play together.”
In 1969, Daniel Guilet retired and was replaced by Isidore Cohen. The trio’s makeup remained intact until 1987, when Mr. Greenhouse retired; Mr. Cohen left in 1992. Their places were taken by the cellist Peter Wiley and the violinist Ida Kavafian. A few years ago, they were replaced by Young Uck Kim and Antonio Meneses, a Brazilian cellist who had won the gold medal in the 1982 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Two years ago, Mr. Kim was forced to give up playing for medical reasons, and Mr. Pressler, on the advice of the group’s manager, brought in Daniel Hope, a young British violinist and a former protégé of Yehudi Menuhin. At 30, Mr. Hope became the youngest player in the trio’s history. Speaking of his current colleagues, whose combined ages do not add up to his own, Mr. Pressler said, “I could be the father of one and the grandfather of the other.”
Over the years, Mr. Pressler has played virtually every significant work ever written for the piano trio, as well as new works commissioned especially for the Beaux Arts. One new piece-chosen by Mr. Hope, who is eager to break down the boundaries between classical music, jazz and world music-is a composition entitled “A Fiddler’s Dream,” by the Cuban composer Paquito D’Rivera. “It may be a fiddler’s dream, but it’s a pianist’s nightmare,” Mr. Pressler said. “It alternates between strict writing and invitations to improvise. What could I do? I looked at some Darius Milhaud pieces”-Milhaud wrote jazz-inflected serious music-”and then I wrote down the basis for the so-called improvisations, and that’s what I played. A few years ago, we commissioned a jazz trio called ‘Roots’ by David Baker. I had to learn how to swing! When Ida [Kavafian] was asked how a trio like Chick Corea’s would have played it differently, she said, ‘Chick Corea wouldn’t be caught dead with the music in front of him. Menahem wouldn’t be caught dead without the music in front of him.’”
Are such challenges a way of keeping himself fresh? I asked. “Well,” he said, “it would take me more than a lifetime to fully express everything that, for example, Beethoven wrote in one of his trios. Every time you play a work by Beethoven, Schubert or Brahms-no matter how many times you’ve played it-you have to reinvent your relationship to the music. And I still have to practice. It’s not just practicing with your hands-the great ones practice with their souls. It hurts . Speaking of which,” he added, “I’ve got another two and a half hours to do this afternoon before the concert.”
That evening, Mr. Pressler, Mr. Hope and Mr. Meneses played a typical Beaux Arts program to a full house at the Met’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium. The first piece, Schubert’s Notturno in E flat Major, allowed Mr. Pressler to display several of the hallmarks that have distinguished his playing throughout his career-a way of building a crescendo or fading in a diminuendo while maintaining a bell-like tone, a sense of the music’s pulse at once propulsive and unhurried. In Ravel’s Trio in A Minor, he moved effortlessly into the half-lit ether of the composer’s prewar Symbolist landscapes with disarming lack of “effect.” After the intermission, his playing of the Brahms Trio No. 2 in C Major had a kind of magisterial rightness to it that could only come from a lifetime of immersion in this multidimensional work with its irresistible extremes of mood. Throughout, his two colleagues supported him and each other with unflagging sensitivity to what the trio, individually and collectively, was bent on saying. Mr. Hope played with the finely tuned ardor of a young poet; Mr. Meneses was the epitome of suave, manly discretion. As Mr. Pressler enters his 50th year as the backbone of this generation-crossing threesome, the Beaux Arts seems more vital than ever.