In Memoriam Alexis Weissenberg (1929 – 2012): A Personal Account

The news of Alexis Weissenberg’s death touched me on two levels. I was saddened and shaken by the news of the passing of one of my all-time favorite pianists. But a few days later, I realized something else: up until January 8th, 2012, all of my beloved pianists were either no longer among the living when I discovered them, or they are still alive today. Maestro Weissenberg’s death marked the first time that I have experienced the loss of a much-loved musician whose recordings I cherish. While this probably just means I am getting older, I also feel (or rather, console myself with the lie) that I have matured as a listener – at least a little bit. Below is my personal account of how I was first introduced to this exceptional pianist, and what he meant to me as a musician.

I first came across Alexis Weissenberg’s piano playing on the radio without knowing it was him. The Goldberg Variations were on, and because I had tuned in at around the  5th variation, I couldn’t catch the artist’s name until the entire piece was over. Thinking back, it was only fitting that my first encounter with him was during the movement’s virtuosic, jumping 16th notes. Up until the 25th adagio variation, I was transfixed by the rapidity and evenness of the notes pouring out of his piano, but in the meantime I was inadvertently comparing this mystery pianist to Glenn Gould.  “A virtuoso, without a doubt”, I remember thinking, “a little loud, and even mechanical, but impressive nevertheless.”

Perhaps I should mention here that I was a relative neophyte to classical music back then, and my take on ‘the Goldbergs’ – or anything by Bach for that matter – was somewhat distorted by the shadow of mighty Gould. “Oh, the Goldberg Variations”, my new circle of friends would say (with a combined classical music listening experience of over three centuries) whenever the Goldberg Variations were the topic of discussion, “you must listen to Gould”. “But make it his ‘55 recording, on Columbia”, one would interject, while the other would begin lecturing me on the virtues of the ‘81 CBS recording, compared to the hastiness of the former. At times, we bend towards the popular creed, whether we consciously choose to or not, and we end up believing something as cliché as Bach = Gould, making it our point of departure. And that is what I did.

The problem with initially getting to know to a work of music is that no matter how good or bad the first performance we hear may be, it is going to leave a permanent mark by postulating a clearly defined paradigm in our minds as to how that particular piece of music is ‘supposed’ to sound. That first experience lays down solid groundwork, against which we will tend to judge all other future performances. While this foundation – which is extremely difficult to empty and offload – can establish a sort of familiarity and understanding of even very demanding music, it also acts as an obstacle to appreciating broader possibilities. Sometimes it takes a radically different approach to shake us up, lure us out of our comfort zone and widen our latitude. And this is perhaps what I cherish in Alexis Weissenberg’s recordings above all else. Having internalized Gould’s understatedly mannered style of Bach, I suppose it was only natural that my initial reaction to Weissenberg’s Goldberg Variations was: “This is loud and mechanical!” – the two main vices of which the maestro was often accused. And these accusations are not without merit, either. Weissenberg is tough on the keyboard: when he hits a note he hits a note. “Fingers are moving fast”, you may find yourself thinking, “and all the notes are there. But where is the soul in all this?” Well, it’s not as if Bach wrote his secular music for the ‘soul’ of it, but for me, it arrived in the shape of his 25th Goldberg Variation that day, and my perception of Alexis Weissenberg as ‘little more than a virtuoso musician’ fortunately vanished right there and then.

In the extensive adagio, Weissenberg took the music with such tenderness and grace, creating an air of such delicate splendor, something completely the opposite of what he had done thus far, that I was bewildered – to say the least. What that movement made me realize was that his technical choices in this great work thus far had not been restricted by his ‘sturdy’ playing style. Rather the opposite was true: his choices in everything from speed and dynamics to embellishments and pauses were entirely deliberate. And it has been with that notion that I have continued to listen to him, to this day, to his Bach, as well as to his Debussy, Chopin, Rachmaninov, Haydn and Beethoven. And Stravinsky and Bartok, too.

I decided to explore his Bach first and immediately ordered the 3-CD EMI set of his Goldberg Variations, 6 Keyboard partitas, the French Overture, the Italian Concerto, and of course, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. Weissenberg not on only broadened my horizons with respect to Bach interpretation, but he became, and many pianists later, has remained my absolute favorite when it comes to this composer. On the surface, it is easy to generalize his Bach (or any composer under his hands, for that matter) with such guileless comments as ‘fast and furious’, or ‘one-dimensional’. Yes, he could go really fast – when he chose to (in fact it is difficult to name many pianists who can indeed go faster), but there is definitely no lack of dimensions where his Bach is concerned. Quite the contrary, in fact: from the regality of his Partitas and the sullenness of his Overture to the controlled frenzy of his Concerto, and perhaps most of all, to the mind-blowing speed, accuracy and evenness of his Fantasy (I still cannot wrap my mind around how someone can simultaneously maintain this trinity at such a high level), his whole approach is a testament to a thinking and conscious pianist who was anything but a ‘soulless virtuoso’, or, as some were wont to refer to him, ‘Mr. Machine Fingers’. He was, but he was not. And only when he chose to. To make this distinction, I think, is to understand Alexis Weissenberg.

My opportunity to discover his wider musical gamut arrived a few months later when I walked into the Academy Music store in New York City, and to my amazement, found a used copy of his long out-of-print Philips’ Great Pianists of the Century CD sitting on a shelf. In it there was naturally more Bach, but also Scarlatti, Debussy, Chopin, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and even Scriabin. Just as with Bach and Gould, I had developed involuntary but persistent predispositions towards archetypal playing styles and corresponding pianists for each of these composers. No, Weissenberg did not end up at the top of my list in each case, but listening to him ultimately did something far more important for me. He showed me an entirely different way of playing each of these composers:  Scarlatti could always use more staccato, Debussy didn’t have to sound hazy and vague all the time, there were buried harmonies and multiple voices in his music that should sometimes be unearthed, Chopin wrote the middle part of his Nocturnes for contrast, so why not expose it more prominently? Unorthodox slants such as these continued to, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, challenge my preconceptions of individual musical works in particular, and, more importantly, of music in general.

My foray into his oeuvre continued with his Debussy, Rachmaninov, Scarlatti and Liszt recordings, and on to nearly everything else I could get my hands on. I continued to applaud him for his virtuosity, his breakneck speeds, his no-room-for-error approach, and though he has never been my go-to pianist for anything other than Bach, he remains the first name I reach for whenever I want to listen to something new in something old. And that, for me, is what makes a maestro.

Alain Matelon