Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The pianist 'of fire and ice'

It was poignant to read about the death of Alexis Weissenberg, the Bulgarian-French pianist. That is Weissenberg up above. I like his look, kind of like Rachmaninoff.

I wonder if the New York Times, which I just linked to, went too far in the very first sentence in calling him charismatic. People throw that word around too freely and the rest of the article does not back it up. But Weissenberg was a very interesting pianist -- I like the bit about the fire and ice.

There is this moving account on pianist Stephen Hough's Web log where Stephen Hough writes about meeting him and being impressed by how dapper Weissenberg was. He writes about looking at Weissenberg's cuffs, lapels, buttons, sleeves ... it's beautiful, try to find a few minutes to read it.

Anyway a few years ago he runs into Weissenberg again and by this time Weissenberg is "a crumpled body in a blanket in a wheelchair."

When I read that all I could think of was that Weissenberg had Parkinson's disease. Leonard Pennario, when I met him, was in a wheelchair and he had Parkinson's. Pennario somehow managed not to be pathetic in that situation but that was Pennario, he was a kind of weird superman. Anyway, Googling around, I found I was right, Weissenberg had been suffering from Parkinson's.

That is very sad. As people are always pointing out to me, Parkinson's is terrible for a pianist. And it is, in that you have to step down early, and people forget about you. And you cannot play, even for yourself.

Weissenberg had a wrenching childhood because during World War II he wound up in a concentration camp. Years ago I read about this and it stuck with me: It happened he had an accordion with him, and he would play Schubert on the accordion, and the guards apparently loved to listen to it. And one day one of the guards, a German guard, came to get Alexis and his family and thrust their possessions at them and spirited them away to a train to safety. The guard shoved them onto the train with their stuff and told them good luck.

A few years ago when I saw the movie "The Pianist" I thought about that. Weissenberg lived "The Pianist."

It is strange for us who are too young to remember World War II to imagine being caught up in a drama of that magnitude. So many people affected in so many different ways. We are spoiled, never having known something like that. That is why we have stuff like Occupy Wall Street going on. People do not know how good they have it.

I reviewed a CD by Alexis Weissenberg a few years ago and I looked up what I wrote.

 Alexis Weissenberg can raise arguments among piano fans. Some love his power and drama, and others find him occasionally icy and off-putting. In the first movement of the Piano Sonata No. 2, he clearly revels -- if you can use so upbeat a word -- in the music's stormy, frightening nature. The Scherzo picks up exactly where the first left off. It's downright furious. 
    You get the sense that lyricism doesn't come easily to Weissenberg. But, in a way, that makes the tender interludes more touching. They sometimes seem so awkward. The heartbreaking section in the middle of the Funeral March sounds self-conscious, like a child playing. The Funeral March itself is, of course, almost unbearably terrifying and chilling. The two piano concertos clearly clip Weissenberg's wings. He has to conform to the orchestra, so his rage, if that's what we're hearing, isn't as evident. The slow movements are beautiful enough. One problem lies in the recording. From time to time, the orchestra sounds downright harsh. 
    It's refreshing, though, to hear a pianist who's original. "Fantasy on Polish National Airs" and "Krakowiak," two unexpected treats, help make this a good, complete glimpse of an engrossing artist. 

I really do not remember that CD set at all! I think I wrote that in a terrible hurry. The date it was printed was Nov. 7, 2007. I had just met Leonard and I was out the door and before I left I wrote a lot of things in a real hurry and this must have been one. By the time it was printed I was already in California.

I had no idea Weissenberg was in the same situation as Pennario -- in a wheelchair, suffering from Parkinson's.

Life is kind of strange sometimes.

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