Alexis Weissenberg, a Bulgarian pianist who spent time in a concentration camp as a child and later performed with Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, died Sunday in Lugano, Switzerland at age 82. He had been suffering a long illness. Bulgaria's Ministry of Culture confirmed his death.
Weissenberg was born July 26, 1929 in Sofia, Bulgaria where, encouraged by his pianist mother, he began lessons with Pantcho Vladigerov at age three. In 1941, with the occupation of Bulgaria by German troops, the family sought to flee for Turkey. He and his mother were caught along the way, however, and thrown in a concentration camp set up for Jews who tried to cross the border illegally.
What saved the pair was an accordion Weissenberg had been given as a gift by an aunt, as he later recalled. A music-loving German guard let Weissenberg play the instrument and after three months helped the young pianist and his mother escape. “The German officer who was given the responsibility of our bunker happened to like music enormously," he wrote. "Luck is a nasty miscalculation which sometimes produces tiny miracles. Our unexpected piece of luck was a musical instrument, the dear old accordion.”
After a stay in Istanbul they soon ended up in Israel, where the young pianist enrolled at the Jerusalem Academy of Music. During that time he performed the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Israel Philharmonic under the baton of Leonard Bernstein.
In 1946, at 17, Weissenberg moved to New York, where he enrolled at Juilliard as a student of Olga Samaroff. He also took classes with Artur Schnabel and Vincent Persichetti, and came to know Vladimir Horowitz. A year later, at Horowitz’s urging, Weissenberg entered the Leventritt competition and won. This led to his debut with the New York Philharmonic, under George Szell, and an increasingly busy touring schedule.
Just when Weissenberg's concert career appeared at its peak, he moved to Paris in 1956, became a French citizen, and left the concert stage for ten years. He recalled the decision in a 1977 interview with Newsweek: "I was like so many young artists, victimized by success. The greater the success, the more repertory is demanded. As a young artist I learned new works very fast and played them much too soon. Facility became the enemy, not the ally."
After taking time to study repertoire and reconstruct his piano technique, he reemerged in 1966 by giving a recital in Paris; later that year he played Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in Berlin under the direction of Herbert von Karajan.
Weissenberg married and had two daughters, spending his later years in Switzerland. During the 1980s and 90s, critics and fans were frequently divided on his playing, which some found to be overly machine-like and idiosyncratic with regard to dynamics, tempo and structure.
“One cannot deny his extraordinary technical command,” wrote music critic Tim Page in a 1985 The New York Times review. “He summons a vast wash of sound from the instrument, and the most complex contrapuntal difficulties are as child's play. But his interpretations have sometimes seemed those of an automaton, characterized by a brute strength that steamrolls any hint of poetry or introspection.”
In interviews, Weissenberg often attributed his precise playing to the Russian-style training he received in Bulgaria and later Israel.
In 1983, Times music critic Bernard Holland concluded a review as such: “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."