The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music news: Controversial pianist Alexis Weissenberg has died at 82. Was he fire or ice? Heart or mind?

January 13, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

I first heard the Bulgarian pianist Alexis Weissenberg (below) not through a recording but in a live recital he gave at the Wisconsin Union Theater in Madison back in the 1970s, I believe.

I think it was an all-Chopin recital. But in any case, what stood out for me what his reading of the famous Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52, a piece that has always struck me as Chopin’s answer to Beethoven’s “AppassionataSonata.

I had grown up with Arthur Rubinstein’s muscular but lyrical and poetic approach. Weissenberg’s virtuosic reading, by comparison, seemed mechanical and rushed, although note-perfect and precise. For all its ferocity, it struck me as dry and clinical, cerebral or intellectual rather than soulful. It seemed to me to lack heart and poetry, the essence of Chopin.

I was young then and so had the temerity after the concert to go backstage and greet Weissenberg and ask him in person why he took the ballade at such a fast tempo.

“Because it is passionate music,” he said.

Good answer, I suppose, and true. But I remained unconvinced.

To this day, I think of his reading as dry and clinical, percussively played with a harsh tone. Weissenberg certainly had fingers and technique galore — chops any pianist would envy. I just don’t think he understood how a ballade is like a ballad—it has to tell a story and have a narrative line with varied pacing. And I think he totally underestimated the value of the slow-burn. He played as he wore his hair: short, spare and bristly.

It is one reason why I much prefer the recording he made of Scarlatti sonatas and of Stravinsky‘s virtuosic arrangement of “Petroushka” (at bottom). It’s not my favorite Scarlatti recording, but I like what Weissenberg did with Scarlatti and Stravinsky more than what he did with poets like Chopin. The fast and clipped baroque and Neo-Classical styles seemed to suit hum better.

In any case, throughout his career Weissenberg divided critics and listeners alike. But apparently he lived out his final years in exile and dignity, fighting Parkinson’s Disease, a humiliating experience for anyone but especially someone with such refined motor skills as a concertizing pianist.

And my memories of him, which I hadn’t thought about for years, came rushing back when I heard of his death last Sunday at 82.

Clearly, not all is glory on the concert stage or in the recording studio.

So I have assembled a variety of sources – some from newspapers, some from the Web and some from radio – so you can learn about Weissenberg who was, whether you liked his playing or not, a force unto himself.

Furthermore, my respect for him as a man, if not an artist, increased as I learned more about his life history from the various obituaries. (He is seen below on the left, with conductor Hebert von Karajan, who gave him his big break.) Perhaps you will feel the same way after you read them.

Leave a comment with how you feel about Alexis Weissenberg and his playing.

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