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.

Here they are:

Classical music: The Ear says goodbye and “Rest in Peace” to 22 prominent classical musicians who died in 2012.

December 29, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the sad duties of ushering in the New Year is saying goodbye to the old year and especially to the people we loved or respected who died last year. (A couple of days remain in 2012, but we can hope no other prominent clasiscal musicians pass away.)

When it comes to classical music, I can’t think of better round up of the classical musicians we lost than the one that was posted this past week by the famed New York City-based all-classical radio station WQXR. (Much of its programming can be streamed live in real time, including its annual end-of-the-year Classical Countdown through this weekend until midnight on New Year’s Eve that includes 105 audience favorites. Check its home page

Not only does the WQXR obituaries offer fine portraits of the musicians, they also give their ages as well as a capsule summary of their careers with particular points of distinction.

Some of the names, from all genres, are all too familiar: baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (below); composers Elliott Carter and Dave Brubeck; pianist Alexis Weissenberg and pianist-writer Charles Rosen, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (at bottom, singing Villa-Lobos). But there are many more who were also distinguished and who will be missed.

dietrich fischer-dieskau at height

Here is a link:!/blogs/wqxr-blog/2012/dec/26/memoriam-classical-musicians-who-died-2012-slideshow/slideshow/

Let us keep them in our memory and be thankful for the music and beauty they brought into this world, which so sorely needs that beauty.

If you know of someone who was left our,  please leave some remark or remembrance in the COMMENT section.

May the departed rest is peace as we greet 2013.

Classical music: It’s time to catch up on obituaries for early music pioneer Gustav Leonhardt; African-American opera pioneer Camilla Williams; and left-handed Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund.

February 11, 2012

An alert: This Sunday at 3 p.m. at the historic Gates of Heaven Synagogue in James Madison Park, in downtown Madison, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble (below) will perform 17th and 18th century music on authentic period instruments, The program features works by Schutz, Gabrielli, Couperin, J.S. Bach, Lalande and Marin Marais. Tickets are $15 at the door. For more information including future concert dates, visit

By Jacob Stockinger

We’re not long into the new year and already there have been some important deaths in the classical music world that are worthy taking note of.

One of those deaths – that of the controversial pianist Alexis Weissenberg (below) – I covered somewhat in depth and with personal comments.

Here is a link:

But I have to admit I have some catching to do, largely to devoting blogs to other topics, including the sudden burst of concerts and events at the beginning of the concert season’s second half after its winter holiday intermission.

Perhaps the most important death was that of the Dutch harpsichordist and early music pioneer Gustav Leonhardt (below).

Leonhardt was an important and curious figure who once wore wig to play the part of J.S. Bach in a movie (at bottom).

I had a friend who referred to him, jokingly but with affection, as “machine-gun fingers Gus.”

And it is true that Leonhardt was a terrifically virtuosic keyboard artist with unbelievable facility when it came to playing solo or in an ensemble. And he obviously learned fast, mastering a lot of music. An search reveals some 320 CDs with him that are available. Clearly, he was as prolific as he has good.

Still, there was an element of truth to the jest. Leonhardt, who certainly helped train many of the major figures today in the revival of early music and historically informed performance practices, seemed in his own music-making stiffer, stricter, more severe and less expressive that later generations, who have emphasized the musical and emotional content of the music over the questions of authentic instruments and period technique.

But no one can doubt that Gustav Leonhardt was a giant.

That comes across in the obituaries, and there were many. Here are two of the best:

Speaking of pioneers, here is an obituary that is especially timely considering that February is Black History Month in the U.S.

Camilla Williams is not as famous as Marion Anderson, Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett or Jessaye Norman. But she set the stage for them by being the first African-American singer to secure a contract, in 1946, from an American opera company.

Another loss is that of the widely admired Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund, who was known for conducting left-handed (and playing the violin left-handed) as well as championing the music of his fellow countryman Jean Sibelius:

Classical music review: We should hear many more Scarlatti keyboard sonatas — so Volume 11 in Naxos’ series of the complete Scarlatti is a fine addition to an outstanding series

July 29, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

When you hear a great Scarlatti sonata – and there are many great ones among the 555 sonatas that Domenico Scarlatti (1885-1757) composed for the keyboard – you inevitably wonder: Why haven’t they found a bigger place in the active performing, recording and teaching repertoire?

Chopin knew of Scarlatti (below) and his sonatas, and apparently played them and taught them. But it wasn’t until the early and mid-20th century when virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz and baroque scholar Ralph Kirkpatrick made them a staple of the piano repertoire.

Then came many more great interpreters including Robert Casadesus, Dinu Lipatti, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Andrea Schiff, Maria Tipo, Ivo Pogorelich, Alexis Weissenberg, Martha Argerich, Murray Perahia and Mikhail Pletnev, among others. (Of course, there is a whole other school of harpsichordists, led by the late Scott Ross, who played and recorded the complete or selected works of Scarlatti.) But why no Scarlatti from Sviatoslav Richter? Maurizio Pollini? Emanuel Ax?

Moreover, even among those prestigious names you keep hearing the same two dozen or so sonatas.

All the more reason, then, to welcome the budget-label Naxos project, which uses different pianists to record all the sonatas on a modern piano.

With Volume 11, the series is approaching the half-way mark. And the latest volume has many of the virtues of the previous volumes.

You hear a lot of unknown or unfamiliar sonatas — new repertoire — form the early, middle and late periods. True, many seem only mediocre to above-average, hack work for the Spanish court. But almost all volumes also offer real treasures that have lain hidden or unknown for too long.

I, for example, have found increasingly that I like the slower, ballad-like sonatas over the faster and more dance-like, more Spanish-influenced, sonatas Scarlatti, who began his career in Italy and finished it at a Spanish court.

I also find that the series give me good ideas of how to program them two or three at a time, making up either a contrasting pair (often major key-minor key or slow-fast) or a fabricated three-movement Classical-era sonata.

The pianist in Vol. 11 is Gottlieb Wallisch (below). He has won his share of prizes and played his share of recitals and concertos. He is no star and I doubt he will become one. To my ear, he doesn’t quite rise to the level of Vols. 5, 7, 8 and 10, which feature (respectively) Benjamin Frith, Konstantin Scherbakov, Soyeon Lee and Colleen Lee. But he is very good.

Wallisch seems solid and competent, occasionally even inspired. (I wonder: Did he get to choose the 18 sonatas on this recording?) You can check out his web site via this link:

One of the things I also like is that Scarlatti helps the Italian baroque to compete with the predominance of the German baroque, with Bach, Handel, Telemann and other of their contemporaries.

In some ways, I think of Scarlatti as the Vivaldi of the keyboard. His work is appealing and prolific, plus it can be repetitive and easy to digest with its sense of accessible pathos and joy. It is also fun to, if challenging, to play with its lighter and less contrapuntal, more songful and guitar-like texture.

And speaking as an amateur pianist, I also find Scarlatti’s sonatas are great for doing exactly what the composer designed them to do: Serve as exercises that limber up the fingers and advance musicality.

What do you think of the Naxos Scarlatti series using different pianists?

What do you think of Scarlatti sonatas?

On the piano versus harpsichord?

Do you have favorite volumes in the Naxos series?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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