In 1966, Herbert von Karajan planned to make a film of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 with Sviatoslav Richter. He was looking for a suitable director, and a screening was organised for him of an innovative film directed by Åke Falck, an assistant to Ingmar Bergman. It featured Alexis Weissenberg playing Stravinsky’s 'Three Movements' from Petrushka and had been shot the previous year in Stockholm. Weissenberg asked to attend the screening incognito. Karajan was so impressed with the pianist he was watching that he asked to meet him. ‘Nothing could be easier,’ he was told. ‘He’s sitting right behind you.’ Karajan immediately invited Weissenberg to play the Tchaikovsky with the Berlin Phil. This, too, was filmed by Falck in 1967 with Weissenberg as soloist. The same year he replaced Michelangeli in Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto with the New York Philharmonic. These events led to what was a virtual relaunch of Weissenberg’s career.
Those pioneering 15 minutes of film, with its coruscating performance of Petrushka, will be a lasting memorial to a pianist who divided musical opinion. (It is currently available on Medici Arts, with selections from various TV broadcasts of recitals, a performance of Brahms Second Concerto with Prêtre and a bonus feature with Weissenberg talking about Petrushka.) You were likely to be bowled over by his superlative technique but, the critics asked, did it always produce truly musical, insightful performances? Some likened him to a piano-playing machine.
Until the Falk film and the meeting with Karajan, Weissenberg’s career had languished in the doldrums for the previous decade after an exceptionally promising start. He was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1929. In 1944 he and his mother spent three months in a prison camp but escaped via Turkey to Israel. There he studied with pupils of Schnabel and Busoni. Aged 17, he travelled to America where he had some lessons with Schnabel himself, the great harpsichordist Wanda Landowska and, in New York, Olga Samaroff. He won the Leventritt Award, found himself championed by conductors Eugene Ormandy and George Szell, toured South and Central America, and made his recital debut in New York in 1948. Suddenly he was the talk of the town.
It was after this sensational early success that doubts began to creep in. Weissenberg, adversely affected by too many critical reviews and by management problems, started playing fewer and fewer concerts, gradually retiring from the concert circuit to reconsider his art. He became a French citizen and spent much time reading, studying and travelling. The Petrushka film and the invitation from Karajan re-ignited his ambition and confidence. Subsequently, as well as recording for EMI, he also appeared on RCA, DG (discs of Scarlatti and Debussy) and Ermitage.
One other aspect of Weissenberg’s wobbly career trajectory is worth recalling. For many years, a 45rpm EP recording circulated amongst pianophiles (usually via cassette copies) of six virtuoso piano arrangements of songs by the French singer-songwriter Charles Trénet (1913-2001) of La mer fame. The 1950s sound was not wonderful but the playing and the arrangements were staggeringly good. Who was the pianist? The record label merely stated
'Mr Nobody Plays Trénet'. For years, no one knew for sure the identity of 'Mr Nobody'. It was only quite recently that it was revealed to be Alexis Weissenberg. The actual music had never been written down by him. That was left to the Canadian virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin who, captivated by the six arrangements, transcribed and, in 2007, recorded them for Hyperion on
an acclaimed disc entitled 'In a State of Jazz'.
The best of Weissenberg’s recordings (self-selected) can be found on Les introuvables de Alexis Weissenberg (EMI), four discs with Petrushka (of course), miraculously fluent and subtly coloured Variations on ‘La Ricordanza’ (Czerny), Harold Bauer’s arrangement of Franck’s organ Prélude, Fugue & Variations, a muscular and underrated Brahms No 1 with Muti as well as Ravel’s G major Concerto, Rachmaninov’s Third and Prokofiev’s Third. Only Petrushka and ‘La Ricordanza’ are duplicated on the two CDs devoted to Weissenberg’s art that constitute Volume 97 of Great Pianists of the 20th Century (Philips).