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

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The Independent Online

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.