Thursday 12 July 2012

Alexis Weissenberg – A Great Pianist

I will admit straight away that I have always been a great admirer of the pianist Alexis Weissenberg who sadly died on January 8 2012 aged 82.

Bulgarian born, he was one of the legendary performers of the twentieth century. He was taught to play the piano by his mother and, as several members of her family were Vienna Conservatory-trained musicians, he grew up in an intensely musical environment. Weissenberg went on to study with the Bulgarian composer, Pancho Vladigerov, at whose house Weissenberg heard Dinu Lipatti perform.

Weissenberg gave his first recital at the age of ten which included a composition of his own. Unfortunately, soon after this recital, whilst trying to flee to Turkey to escape the fascists, he and his mother were caught and sent to a concentration camp. They were saved because of an accordion he had been given as a gift by an aunt. A German guard let Weissenberg play and after three months put the Weissenbergs on a train to Istanbul. Of this time terrible time Weissenberg recalled ‘…only three elements remained - constant silence, singing, and crying.’

In 1945 they moved to Palestine, where Weissenberg studied with Leo Kestenberg at the Jerusalem Academy of Music. That year he also made his first appearance as a soloist with an orchestra, later performing with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

Weissenberg left Palestine for the USA in 1946 and enrolled at the Juilliard School of Music, studying with Olga Samaroff, Artur Schnabel and Wanda Landowska. He also met Vladimir Horowitz, who encouraged him to enter the Leventritt Award competition.  Weissenberg entered and won the award in 1947 thus launching his career.

Weissenberg’s USA debut came in 1947, playing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under George Szell. After touring extensively in the USA and Europe, in 1956, Weissenberg moved to Paris, eventually becoming a French citizen.

Around the time of his move to Paris he stopped performing for nearly a decade in order to work on his keyboard technique and to teach. In 1966 he resumed his career by giving a recital in Paris. That same year he also gave a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in Berlin under Herbert von Karajan, who called him “one of the best pianists of our time”. Subsequently he toured and gave master classes all over the world.

As a timely memorial to Weissenberg’s recorded legacy, EMI have issued a ten CD box set of his recordings made by them between 1966 and 1983. All are stereo recordings and are never less than acceptable with most being good to excellent.

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Of the recordings in this set I went straight away to the Brahms Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini. I have known this recording since it was first issued in 1973 and could never work out why it was, to my knowledge, never issued on CD. EMI re-issued a performance Weissenberg made with Ricardo Muti, several times but, for all the merits of that recording, this is the one to have.

There is fire and granite in this performance and such is the power and authority of Weisennberg’s playing that all the tempi, slower than usual at times, seem just right. There is the occasional vocal contribution form the pianist but it does not distract. This for me is the recording of this work to have despite the great recordings form the likes of Nelson Freire and Emil Gilels.

Weissenberg has been called wilful and at times he can make sudden mood changes in his playing but again such is his authority that this merely makes for a more riveting experience. Nowhere is this more evident that in the recordings here of Mozart’s Piano Concertos 9 and 21 where the playing is at times elegant, strongly emotional, and scintillating.

His Chopin piano concerto recordings are idiosyncratic and certainly not a first choice but they grip the attention not only because of their sometimes exaggerated tempi, but because of the superb playing.

In his recordings with Karajan there is a big boned and broadly conceived performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, perhaps a little short on poetry but with some formidable playing particularly in the last movement where Weissenberg shows all his power, authority and personality. There is a beautifully paced Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto where the music is allowed to unfold naturally, Weissenberg never pushing the music forward unduly.

Where else are you likely to get Bernstein conducting Rachmaninov as in this performance of the Third Piano Concerto conducted without undue sentiment. Weisennberg gives a broad authoritative performance and is formidable in the climaxes. What I like particularly is the terrific pacing so that there is clarity to the musical line.

Prokofiev’s Third Concerto with Seiji Ozawa is a fabulous performance, spiky, rhythmic and supercharged. Ozawa also accompanies Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue which seems rather restrained and Variations on ‘I Got Rhythm’ where there is more freedom and panache. Ravel’s G minor concerto gets all the spontaneity you could wish and, at times, it seems as though Weissenberg is improvising.

Mussorsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ suits Weissenberg’s temperament perfectly allowing for sudden changes in expression and personality and making for a great performance.

Weissenberg is unexpectedly passionate in his Bach with a formidable Bach/Busoni Chaconne and, in the two Schumann discs, displays playing that is remarkable for its spontaneity and range of mood. Just listen to his Fantasia in C Op.17 with such perfectly judged layering of the musical lines for each hand adding to the emotional pull of the music.

The tenth disc in this set contains encores yet there is still much to be admired in his Chopin Etudes, Liszt’s Valse-Impromptu and Scriabin Nocturne O9. No.2. and Etude Op.8 No.11. The final work on the last disc is a short piece called ‘Improvisation’ by his old teacher Pancho Vladigerov, a lovely tribute which takes us full circle back to his young days.

If you admire great pianism then don’t miss this special set which can be obtained from Amazon for as little as £21.90. An unmissable bargain.

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