Polarising pianist: Alexis Weissenberg

Bryce Morrison
Friday, May 24, 2024

In his latest discussion of a pianist notorious for invoking opposing points of view, Bryce Morrison explores the varied legacy of Alexis Weissenberg, an artist renowned for his uncompromising interpretations

Alexis Weissenberg’s confrontational style has brought detractors as well as admirers (photo: Tully Potter Collection)
Alexis Weissenberg’s confrontational style has brought detractors as well as admirers (photo: Tully Potter Collection)

No pianist of international repute has divided opinion more dramatically than Alexis Weissenberg (1929-2012), an artist who provoked an extreme love-hate division. He was a terrific pianist, but the difficulty arises when the nature of his musicianship is called into question. He believed that it is the artist’s duty to stimulate, to provoke and even to antagonise, in contrast with what he saw as stale, long-outmoded attitudes and traditions – a cleansing of the Augean stables. For Weissenberg it was vital to move with the times, to put muscle back into music-making; he found Chopin played in the old, sentimental style intolerable. As he so graphically put it to me in an interview many years ago, ‘if you like someone you sleep with them, if you don’t you smack their face’ (this was delivered with mischief rather than malice). More playfully, he described his style as ‘blue jeans in a 17th-century home’.

Weissenberg was never a pianist to invite a unanimous or neutral response

Behind Weissenberg’s see-saw career – its alternation of long sabbaticals and a glittering international presence – lay a hint of instability despite the surface aplomb, which would perhaps have surprised his string of star-studded admirers. He carried letters of recommendation from both Schnabel and Horowitz, and worked with celebrated conductors including Ormandy, Szell, Muti, Giulini, Prêtre and, most prominently of all, Karajan, who, dazzled by his performance of Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka, engaged him on the spot, a relatively unknown pianist, as soloist with his Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. True, there were those who claimed that ‘two such clinical musicians were made for each other’, but a critical conundrum was created that remains to this day. What was the appeal for figures of such standing, and what were the reasons for so many savage dismissals elsewhere? For some, Weissenberg possessed an other-worldly technical prowess that led only to a musical cul-de-sac. One reviewer, Bernard Holland, reporting on a 1982 Carnegie Hall performance of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy for The New York Times, described his playing as ‘chillingly scientific … a brilliant dissection of cold, grey, gleaming flesh, from which every trace of living blood had been conscientiously squeezed away’. Another critic at the same recital found the playing to be ‘electrifying and breathtaking, disclosing an acute musical intelligence’. I recall a comment by an infuriated colleague after a barnstorming London performance of Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto, that such strident bravura is not so difficult when there is so little musical impediment. For him – in the face of a standing ovation from an audience full of pianists – this was a case of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Both amused and bemused by such an array of opinions, Weissenberg told The Times in 1983: ‘I still don’t know why my playing is considered so disturbing. I remember in school, as a child, I learned that the flame of a candle is composed of a yellow light, which actually burns, and a blue light within it, which is ice cold. That is true of human beings as well. Perhaps it is the sight of that blue light in me that frightens certain people.’ Asked whether his playing was more intuitive than pre-planned he replied, ‘all of it is pre-planned and all of it is intuitive’. Weissenberg the philosopher, beguilingly eloquent and persuasive.

Weissenberg was never a pianist to invite a unanimous or neutral response. The French pianist Bertrand Chamayou has said that he and his fellow students in Paris were forbidden to listen to Samson François, a mercurial genius adored by the French public but given to an eccentricity that was considered dangerous for students, potentially leading them away from a more acceptable convention and sobriety. The same could be said of Weissenberg (who spoke of François as brilliant but irresponsible). The attractions of such perversity – of taking the kind of risks frowned upon by critical and academic orthodoxy – were considered out of bounds.

Weissenberg’s richly varied repertoire – recorded on a range of labels – included a substantial amount of Bach and hyphenated Bach. And here you meet his determination to confront. This is intended as Bach for our times, the confines of tired tradition swept unceremoniously away to create a new sense of relevance. In this sense there is a parallel with Glenn Gould, whose performances of Bach prompted Ashkenazy to exclaim in wonder, ‘it was as if a meteor had landed and opened up whole new vistas of imagination and what was possible at the keyboard’. But such a drastic change from what Ashkenazy saw as a moribund Russian tradition has its downside with Weissenberg, which is particularly apparent when you listen to his Goldberg Variations. Weissenberg’s gaunt and monochrome playing offers little beyond a vertiginous and mechanical response; you are left feeling there has to be more of the wonder and humanity celebrated by Rosalyn Tureck when she claimed that after too many years touring the States with standard repertoire (less than affectionate memories of playing Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto) she turned exclusively to Bach. I find Weissenberg’s Goldbergs more grating than refreshing, though there is a shaft of light in the final return of the opening Aria, one of those moments that could occasionally surface from beneath a relentlessly glassy surface. Turn to Perahia, Angelich, Ólafsson and Kolesnikov (to name but four) and you hear in their different ways a fundamental quality missing from Weissenberg. András Schiff and Tatiana Nikolayeva insisted that Bach is the most romantic of all composers and this thought comes to mind hearing Weissenberg’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue. You could of course argue that Weissenberg’s Bach is a matter of preference or taste, yet he makes it hard to relinquish such legendary accounts as Lipatti’s in the First Partita and Edwin Fischer’s in the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue. Overall, Weissenberg is more successful in opulent and romantically hyphenated Bach than in Bach pure and simple.

Yet Weissenberg’s repertoire focused chiefly on the Romantics, principally Chopin, where again he deplored what he saw as old-fashioned and salon-like playing. They were those who put a premium on ‘singing’ (Chopin quickly lost interest in students who could not make the piano ‘sing’), on cantabile, legato and rubato as a form of natural musical breathing. Some will point out that if Rubinstein is considered by many to be the supreme Chopin pianist, his patrician manner was initially considered cold, too distant from the drawing room. His heroic stance was taken still further by Pollini, who in his early days played a Chopin with an overwhelming strength. Yet when you listen to Weissenberg in, say, the A flat major Impromptu, you find one of Chopin’s most teasing, elegant and sophisticated short works turned into little more than a percussive toccata. If Barenboim once claimed that Rubinstein’s Chopin always ‘had spine’, you could say of Weissenberg that it exhibits little more than rigidity. It is surely significant that Gould claimed he found the Chopin concertos acceptable only when played by Weissenberg, a necessary alternative to other more gentle and loving conceptions. Writing of Noel Mewton-Wood’s recording of the E minor Concerto, Edward Sackville-West noted that he ‘varies the colour, the light and shade, so that what is often mere surface glitter acquires the charm of high relief’ (Gramophone, May 1953). Such a sophisticated and stylish description could hardly have been written about Weissenberg.

A programme of encores (‘Les Bis de Alexis Weissenberg’) might lead one to expect a greater degree of warmth, yet for the most part you are left out in the cold. Liszt’s Valse-Impromptu is edgy and blurred (a surprising failing), its charm virtually erased. Likewise, if affection is of the essence in Schumann’s Arabeske, it is once more in short supply; the richer response to the poignant and reflective coda comes too late to modify earlier diffidence.

Does Debussy’s Children’s Corner, that vernal and inimitable reflection of childhood seen through adult eyes, survive Weissenberg’s ideology, his refusal of possible sentimentality? Debussy’s qualifying modérément in ‘Dr Gradus ad Parnassum’ may be given short shrift, in a prestissimo that exceeds even those of Rachmaninov and William Kapell, while ‘The Snow is Dancing’ is quite without its painful subtext. Yet ‘Serenade for the Doll’ is pert and wistful, and in ‘Jimbo’s Lullaby’ there is a real sense of Chouchou’s toy elephant journeying through nightmare to snoring contentment.

In Prokofiev’s Third Sonata and Suggestion diabolique we are back on Weissenberg’s more familiar territory, which brings a more apt approach. Here his violence – tempestoso with a vengeance in the Sonata – and velocity leave you winded. Together with the celebrated rendition of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, the performance that first caught Karajan’s attention, you are stunned by such icy and boundless bravura.

No consideration of Weissenberg would be complete without reference to his Rachmaninov. He recorded the 24 Preludes, the two sonatas and the Second and Third Concertos. In the sonatas he takes violence close to incoherence. The First Sonata (at long last rescued from neglect) will either leave you riveted or outraged at such a merciless assault. Everything is viewed as cataclysmic, the approach to the first-movement climax given as if pursued by the Furies. Similarly, in the Second Sonata – given in the 1931 revision (Weissenberg ruefully told me he was unaware of the earlier 1913 version) – everything is reduced to an uproar. A single bar of Van Cliburn’s legendary Moscow performance reveals an eloquence absent from Weissenberg’s manic brilliance.

Given all of this, it is strange to find Weissenberg subdued to the point of reticence in the Second Piano Concerto. This is Rachmaninov on tranquillisers. Was it possible that Weissenberg was intimidated (and he was not easily intimidated) by his partnership with Karajan? As in the conductor’s recordings with Lazar Berman and Evgeny Kissin, the focus and limelight are on Karajan. Yet in the Third Concerto, in the recording with Georges Prêtre, the reverse is true. Here you note the sudden halt in the approach to the first-movement climax, a convulsive rhetorical gesture that must have left the conductor startled, while in the cadenza (the less elaborate of the two) such pulverising speed and blistering force will leave you agog, wondering how such things are even possible or desirable.

And there is so much more. Yet Weissenberg – unlike artists such as Myra Hess, Schnabel, Cortot and in more recent times Lupu and Zimerman – was happy to visit the studio, seeing no reason to fear the medium. He was a prolific recording artist and if I have not mentioned his partnerships with Anne-Sophie Mutter, Nicolai Gedda, Hermann Prey and Montserrat Caballé, it is not because they are of less interest. In each case the playing is as distinctive as ever, while at the same time maintaining a true partnership, never (as in the case of Horowitz with Fischer-Dieskau) an engulfing presence. While Weissenberg remained puzzled by the furore over his playing, was he secretly delighted by his wake-up call? If people came close to fisticuffs in disagreement, so much the better. Anything is preferable to blandness or convention.

And what of the influence of such a resolute and determined force? Weissenberg is hardly an icon in the sense of a Schnabel, Horowitz or Cortot. It is difficult, too, to sense his effect on, say, Federico Colli, Can Çakmur, Beatrice Rana or Pavel Kolesnikov (to name but four of today’s outstanding young pianists). More generally, Weissenberg was a confrontational pianist, one who took you to task, demanding and even forcing you to rid yourself of former parameters and preconceptions. To say you either love or hate Weissenberg is to use disproportionate language, yet such words bubble inevitably to the surface. Weissenberg was included in the Philips collection of ‘Great Pianists of the 20th Century’ yet he was, in Charles Rosen’s description of modernism, ‘a kind of provocation’. Could it be that, to paraphrase Hamlet’s plea to Horatio, ‘there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Weissenberg’s philosophy’?

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2024 issue of International Piano. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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