Alexis Weissenberg owes his and his mother’s life to an accordion. In 1941, when the boy is twelve years old, the two of them flee the growing Anti-Semitism in Bulgaria, and are caught with false papers and imprisoned in a camp near Sofia. They have hardly brought anything along with them: a small bag and box containing a few belongings, the imaginary piano that Alexis (then still called Sigi) always sees the moment he closes his eyes, and an accordion, a birthday present from his aunt. One of the German guards is an ardent music lover.
Every day he listens to Sigi’s playing, and in the end saves both mother and son from deportation, helping them to escape over the Turkish border. From here, their journey continues onward to Palestine. In Jerusalem young Sigi Weissenberg enjoys great success as a pianist; when he sets out in 1946 to study at the Juilliard School, he has already played under Bernstein. Barely arrived in New York, he wins a celebrated competition and his international career begins.
1929 born as Alexis Sigismond Weissenberg in Sofia. His mother, a pianist, gives him rigorous piano lessons starting from the age of four
1939 first concert: among the pieces he plays is an etude of his own composition, which he also quickly transposes into a different key in order to sound better. On this occasion he realizes how much he loves the stage
1941 escape: three months in a Nazi camp near Sofia, three months in Turkey, then Palestine
1943 soloist performing Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto in Jerusalem, tour of South Africa the following year
1946–1949 studies at the Juilliard School. He wins the Leventritt Competition in New York (in Palestine, Leo Kerstenberg gave him letters of recommendation to Horowitz and Schnabel so he would be allowed to participate). His “first career” follows, with countless concerts and recordings
1956 settles in Paris, break from concerts until 1965; he works on his technique and repertoire and earns his living by teaching
1965 return to the concert stage, beginning his second, international career. He becomes Karajan’s favorite pianist, and his recordings of Rachmaninoff’s Preludes, Liszt’s B-minor Sonata, and Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales are still regarded as benchmarks today
Starting in 1995, progressive withdrawal from concert life due to his Parkinson’s disease, continues teaching
2007 honorary doctorate from the National Academy of Music, Bulgaria, which is named after Weissenberg’s first official teacher, Pancho Vladigerov
2012 death of the cosmopolitan pianist, who speaks eight languages, in Switzerland, where he lived during his later years. He leaves behind an enormous discography
Did you know?
Few pianists are as divisive as Alexis Weissenberg: to his critics, he seems too cool and intellectual, while his fans see this as great clarity and mastery and are captivated by the Romantic splendor of his playing. There is only one thing everyone agrees on: the flawlessness of his technique and his breathtaking virtuosity
During his lifetime, Weissenberg revealed little about his personal life; we hardly know more than the fact that he was married once and has two daughters. In private photos he preferred posing with Karlos, a big black poodle
Weissenberg is also a composer. His best-known works are a Sonate en état du jazz for piano and the musicals Nostalgie and La Fugue, the latter for narrator, five singers, and fourteen pianists
He enjoys crossing musical boundaries: for example, accompanying Charles Aznavour and Nana Mouskouri on television or recording his own compositions with sixteen-year-old Anke Engelke
Weissenberg is also a gifted caricaturist and illustrator, and many of his collages have been on display in Bulgaria
When it comes to Rachmaninoff’s feared Third Piano Concerto, Horowitz considers Weissenberg to be his only possible successor. Weissenberg, who even looks a bit like Rachmaninoff, records the work a total of three times (with Prètre, Ozawa, and Bernstein)
On the subject of his polished Chopin recordings, free of all sentimentality, Weissenberg says: “Actually, one should never believe in traditions. Tradition is a guarantee for death in music. Of this I am convinced.”