Pianist Alexis Weissenberg Dies At 82

Jan 9, 2012
Originally published on December 31, 2012 8:51 am

The Bulgarian-born pianist Alexis Weissenberg, whose musical talent as a youngster probably saved his life and that of his mother, died Sunday at age 82.

Weissenberg's career swung high and low. At its peak, he made recordings with Leonard Bernstein and Herbert Von Karajan and was hailed as a distinctive virtuoso. At its rock bottom, Weissenberg, weary from too much fame too fast, took a 10-year break, reemerging with a 1966 Paris recital and successful performances of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 with Karajan.

Weissenberg was born in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, in 1929 and began piano lessons at age 3. He gave his first recital at 10.

It was during World War II — in 1941, as he recalled on his website — that he and his mother packed a small bag, a few sandwiches and an accordion and fled to the border with fake ID papers:

My mother was interrogated during two infinite hours, after which we were placed in an improvised concentration camp with a probable design to a final destination, Poland and extermination. It is unnecessary here to describe the three months we spent there, it was no different from other camps, except that there were no tortures and no murder. Only three elements remained constant: silence, singing, and crying. The German officer who was given the responsibility of our bunker happened to like music enormously.

Luck is a nasty miscalculation which sometimes produces tiny miracles. Our unexpected piece of luck was a musical instrument, the dear old accordion. The German officer adored Schubert. He let me play in the late afternoon, and 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.

It was the same officer who decided one chaotic day to come and fetch us hurriedly, bring us to the station, push our belongings through the door, literally throw the accordion through the window of the compartment, and say to my mother, in German "Viel Glück" ["Good Luck"] and vanish. Half an hour later the train crossed the border. Nobody asked for a passport.

Weissenberg reportedly had long suffered from Parkinson's disease. He died in Lugano, Switzerland, where his family had moved.

Click on the audio link at the top of this page to hear pianist Kirill Gerstein talk about Weissenberg the man and the musician.

If you have any favorite Weissenberg memories, please tell us about them in the comments section. You can also read a more detailed obituary here from our colleague Brian Wise at WQXR.

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Finally, this hour, we remember a musician who was known for his precision.


CORNISH: That's Alexis Weissenberg playing Chopin's "Etude for Piano No. 3 in E Major." In 1982, New York Times critic Bernard Holland called one of his performances chillingly scientific. That same critic, a year later, concluded this after another performance: Judging from the unrelenting applause at the end, Mr. Weissenberg impressed his listeners deeply. One may agree or disagree, but one pays him heed. He is never boring. Alexis Weissenberg died Sunday at the age of 82.


CORNISH: Kirill Gerstein is a pianist who calls Weissenberg his mentor.

KIRILL GERSTEIN: I think he was not at all cold, neither as a person nor as a musician. I think there was a burning intensity that you could always sense. At the same time, it was a burning intensity that was not frivolous or one that was just on the spur of the moment, instinctive one.


GERSTEIN: I think he held this fire that sometimes came across as violent. And this process of holding his intensity and controlling it tightly, this meeting of energy and control, I think it was very much an honest manifestation of how he was as a person and what he believed as a musician. And this won him admiration of many musicians.

CORNISH: Alexis Weissenberg was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1929. He was an only child, and his mother began teaching him to play the piano. He told Kirill Gerstein a story about the impact music had on him at an early age.

GERSTEIN: As a young child, even though he was born into a Jewish family, his grandmother would take him to a Bulgarian Orthodox Church where he would hear this typical sound of the Orthodox choir. And he told me that he remembers once hearing this deep, deep bass of the priest singing a prayer, and he instinctively ran towards the priest and just put his ear to the stomach of this man while he was singing one of these ultra-low notes. And the priest, instead of pushing him away, he actually embraced him, and he said that he always remembered for the rest of his life, and he said that it - he felt that it was really an influence on how he perceived music.


CORNISH: There is a dramatic backstory in the life of Alexis Weissenberg. In 1941, Bulgaria allied itself with the Nazis. Weissenberg and his mother fled, carrying with them only sandwiches and an old accordion. That accordion proved fateful. He and his mother were caught at the border and sent to an improvised concentration camp. It just so happened that a German officer there enjoyed listening to Weissenberg play Schubert on that accordion. One day, the officer unexpectedly took them to the train station and said good luck. And that train delivered them to Istanbul and to safety.


CORNISH: After the war, Weissenberg made it to New York, where he studied at Juilliard. Later, he lived in France and Switzerland. In addition to performing, he taught master classes. Kirill Gerstein studied with him and said he leaves as part of his legacy many young pianists who he touched through his teaching.


CORNISH: Alexis Weissenberg had been ill with Parkinson's disease. He died Sunday at the age of 82.



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