Alexis Weissenberg: Pianist celebrated for the clarity and command of his style

At the height of his fame Alexis Weissenberg was a household name in his adoptive France.

When French TV producers in the 1970s and '80s required a classical pianist Weissenberg was the one they turned to – his rugged good looks and easy-going elegance of manner combining with a fondness for jazz to give him an approachability more formal figures were felt to lack. He was happy to break down the barriers, appearing on television as a stylish accompanist to such singers as Charles Aznavour and Nana Mouskouri.

Inside classical music Weissenberg divided attention. His blisteringly virtuosic technique dealt easily with the warhorses of the concerto repertoire – too easily, said his critics, who argued that technique wasn't everything and that Weissenberg's pyrotechnics disguised a want of sensitivity and warmth. Weissenberg took the criticism in his stride, aided by a lively sense of humour and a deeply ironic view of the world: crystalline clarity and complete command remained the watchwords of his style.

But the path that led to a life in lights almost took an early detour towards death. Weissenberg, an only child, was born to a Jewish family in Bulgaria and began to play the piano as an infant under the guidance of his mother: "Hand position, wrist flexibility, touch, above all sound, tempo control, technical evenness, legato, staccato," as he later recalled – the training was thorough. Before long he showed enough promise to begin studies with Pantcho Vladigerov, the leading Bulgarian composer of the 20th century who was "was an intuitive, flexible teacher, rather than a square pedagogue, and gave us, his pupils, an early awareness of temperament as a tool rather than a spice". Weissenberg gave his first recital at the age of 10, and discovered that "I loved it". He played Bach, Schumann, Vladigerov and an étude of his own.

When Bulgaria sided with Nazi Germany in 1941 some of its Jews saw the writing on the wall: "We left, my mother and I, without my father, with a small bag, a large cardboard box, a few sandwiches, an imaginary piano which appeared every time I closed my eyes, and an old accordion given a few years back as a birthday gift by a rich aunt".

That accordion was to save their lives. Arrested when their fake papers were discovered, they were confined to a makeshift camp which "was no different from other camps, except that there were no tortures and no murder. Only three elements remained constant: silence, singing, and crying".

But the officer in charge of the Weissenbergs' bunker loved music, Schubert in particular, and not only allowed young Sigi to play: he "would come and listen from time to time. I remember him seated in a corner, near nobody, stone-faced, expressionless, suddenly getting up and leaving with the same abruptness as when he walked in". One day, after the Weissenbergs had spent three months in the camp, without warning the same officer bundled them off to the station, pushed them andtheir large cardboard box on to a train, threw the accordion through the window after them, said "Viel Glück" to Weissenberg's mother and vanished. Half an hour later they were safely over the Turkish border.

They continued to Haifa then moved to Jerusalem so Alexis could resume his studies at the Academy. Just after arriving he had his first concerto engagement: Beethoven Third with the Jerusalem Radio Orchestra, and a year later he toured South Africa, giving 15 recitals and playing five concertos.

As the war came to an end, Leo Kerstenberg, president of the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, gave him a concerto booking for each of the next three seasons. The last was with Leonard Bernstein. It was enough to persuade him to move to New York, where arrived in summer 1946 armed with letters from Kerstenberg, one for Artur Schnabel, the other for Vladimir Horowitz, who suggested that his young visitor enter the 1947 Leventritt Competition, which he won. By then he was at the Juilliard, honing his pianistic skills with Olga Samaroff and taking the analysis class of the composer Vincent Persichetti.

The Leventritt award kick-started his career: he soon made his New York debut, in the Third Concerto of Rachmaninov (to whom he bore something of a resemblance), with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Georg Szell, and he became a familiar figure in concert halls in America and Europe. Moving to Paris in 1956 (he became a French citizen), he disappeared for the next decade: dissatisfied with his own interpretations, he worked on his technique, earning his living from teaching.

His comeback began at the top: after a recital in Paris he performed the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. Karajan became a frequent collaborator, Weissenberg the one-time Jewish refugee apparently untroubled by Karajan's earlier associations with the Nazi Party. In 1974 (the year of Weissenberg's debut recital in the Royal Festival Hall) they recorded all five Beethoven piano concertos for EMI. Cynics commented that two such clinical musicians were made for each other.

Weissenberg settled into his years of prominence, his own, jazz-flavoured compositions – one of them a Sonate en état de jazz – also attracting attention. A musical, Nostalgie, was premiered in 1992, and in 2008 Martha Argerich presented his musical comedy La Fugue in Lugano, as a tribute to its now-ailing composer. He renounced Paris for Madrid, but his last years were clouded by illness. Parkinson's disease forced his retreat from concerts – his last was in 2001 – and gradually locked him into his own body.

His recorded legacy embraces much of the standard Romantic repertoire, especially Brahms, Chopin, Liszt (including a sizzling account of the B minor Sonata), Rachmaninov and Schumann, though it also extended backwards to Bach and Scarlatti and forwards to Prokofiev and Ravel. The precision of his articulation in these recordings is often astonishing; in the best of them it is informed with a charge of energy to bring up the hair on the back of your neck. His influence lives as a teacher, too, with several of his students now making their own way in the world.

Alexis Sigismond Weissenberg, pianist and composer: born Sofia, Bulgaria 26 July 1929; married (one son, two daughters); died Lugano, Switzerland 8 January 2012.

Suggested Topics
News
Patrick Stewart in the classiest ice bucket to date
people
News
The current recommendation from Britain's Chief Medical Officer, is that people refrain from drinking on at least two days a week
food + drinkTheory is that hangovers are caused by methanol poisoning
News
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea was left red faced but, thankfully, unhurt after taking a few too many steps backwards, sending her tumbling off the stage.
peopleIggy Azalea was left red faced but apparently unhurt after taking a few too many steps backwards
News
newsComedian Lee Hurst started trend with first tweet using the hashtag
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
arts + entsWe have created an infogaphic that looks back over the previous incarnations of the Doctor
Sport
Romelu Lukaku scores during Everton's 3-0 win over Arsenal last season
LIVEFollow all the action as Everton take on Arsenal in the final Premier League game of the day
Life and Style
A nearly completed RoboThespian robot inside the Engineered Arts workshop is tested in Penryn, England. The Cornish company, operating from an industrial unit near Falmouth, is the world's only maker of commercially available life sized humanoid robots
techSuper-intelligent robots could decide destroying the human race is the kindest thing to do
News
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
News
newsRyan Crighton goes in search of the capo dei capi
Life and Style
techConcept would see planes coated in layer of micro-sensors and able to sense wear and tear
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Software Developer (Java /C# Programmer)- London

£30000 - £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A global investment management fi...

Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CCNP, Cisco, London)

£65000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CC...

Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, Cisco, CISSP)

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, C...

Senior Network Engineer-(Design, Implementation, CCIE)

£60000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(Design, ...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition