C1897. CHRISTOPHER KEENE Cond. Syracuse S.O.: The Walk to the Paradise Garden (Delius), Live Performance, 24-25 Feb, 1978; w.ALEXIS WEISSENBERG: Piano Concerto #3 in d (Rachmaninoff), Live Performance, 21-22 Oct., 1977 (both Mulroy Civic Center, Syracuse, NY). (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-1093. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“After a dozen releases in the series, it is abundantly clear that the wider musical world needs to hear as much of Christopher Keene’s work with the Syracuse Symphony as possible. Far beyond regional interest, the taped concerts from the Seventies and Eighties, many from private sources, are a trove of inspiring music-making and testimony to a nearly forgotten American conductor of importance. Anyone who has followed the series, now at Vol. 13, released by St. Laurent Studio will eagerly anticipate this pairing of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto and Delius’ ‘The Walk to the Paradise Garden’, neither of which was bread-and-butter repertoire in the late Seventies.
A particular surprise, for me at least, is the artistry shown by Alexis Weissenberg in the Rachmaninoff. Although not as forgotten as Keene, Weissenberg is mostly remembered by pianophiles today. In 1977 the Bulgarian-born virtuoso, who rose to a major career primarily in France, was 48 and commanded a magisterial technique. I lumped him with ‘those who would be Horowitz’ and remember a loud, showy performance of the Brahms First Concerto as my only live encounter with Weissenberg. As it turns out, that encounter—and a good deal of his discography - didn’t capture the mature artist heard here.
Together, soloist and conductor fashion a warm reading of the first movement of the Rachmaninoff Third that emphasizes the score’s lyricism. The mood is almost dreamlike, which I never anticipated from the usually hard-charging Weissenberg. He is miked far forward, at times blurring the murmurs of the orchestra in soft passages, but this pianist was entirely capable of drowning out an orchestra with his huge sound. I’m impressed by Weissenberg’s ability to convey the first movement as a whole rather than segmenting the music into prominent solo passages and mere doodling when the orchestra carries the main voice.
When he finally unleashes his full virtuosity in the cadenza, Weissenberg’s touch is steely and driven, which works out well for visceral excitement (he plays the shorter revised cadenza). Today’s super virtuosos find a serious rival here. Keene handles the opening of the slow movement with a ravishing touch, and the Syracuse Symphony’s strings and woodwind soloists follow with a lyrical intensity than never descends into the cloying. The feeling is genuinely symphonic, and when Weissenberg enters the dialogue, he communicates authority and musicality at the same time. The most rhapsodic solo passages are tossed off with abandon. The pacing of the finale is exciting without being hectic. The precision and power in Weissenberg’s playing are wonderful. This is a good place to mention that the piano is captured in full, vivid, lifelike sound that is close to studio quality in Producer Yves St. Laurent’s remastering.
Frederick Delius’ music is a rarity on this side of the Atlantic and an acquired taste in any case - to me, he often seems immersed in a private haze of Romantic diffuseness. ‘The Walk to the Paradise Garden’ is an 11-minute orchestrated interlude taken from his only opera, A VILLAGE ROMEO AND JULIET, composed in 1900-01. It is lustrous music in a rhapsodic mood, the effect being like Wagner done in pastels. Keene and the orchestra give a lovely reading. The recorded sound is a little thinner and edgier than for the Rachmaninoff, and the opening moment features some prominent non-musical clicks and clacks of unidentified origin.
Both performances, but especially the Rachmaninoff concerto, will be regarded as cherished additions to the Keene legacy being amassed so impressively here. My warm recommendation goes to the whole series, which has many revelations in store for newcomers. The present release is another jewel in the crown.”
- Huntley Dent, FANFARE
“Alexis Weissenberg, a charismatic Bulgarian-born pianist known for his thundering aggressiveness and rational detachment at the keyboard, and for his unapologetic defense of those traits in interviews, appeared as a soloist with the world’s leading orchestras, played recitals on celebrated stages and made many recordings. A naturalized French citizen, he was a Romantic specialist, most closely associated with Schumann, Chopin and perhaps especially Rachmaninoff, whose percussive pyrotechnics suited him.
Mr. Weissenberg’s cool yet blazing approach divided reviewers. Where some heard impeccable technique, others heard soulless efficiency. Where some embraced the drama of his interpretations, others condemned them for aggressiveness. On these points, however, nearly everyone agreed: Mr. Weissenberg possessed a technical prowess rivaled by few other pianists. The ice of his demeanor at the keyboard (he sat, leaned forward and got down to business, playing with scarcely a smile or grimace) was matched by the fire that came off the keys. He could play very fast, and very loud. (Over time, verbs used to characterize his pianism included ‘barrel’, ‘tear’, ‘thunder’ and ‘let loose’).
Reviewing a 1982 Carnegie Hall recital by Mr. Weissenberg, in THE NEW YORK TIMES Bernard Holland called his rendition of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy ‘chillingly scientific’. He added: ‘It was anatomy instruction conducted by a master — a brilliant dissection of cold, gray, gleaming flesh, from which every trace of living blood had been conscientiously squeezed away’.
To his critics, Mr. Weissenberg had no shortage of articulate rejoinders. In a 1983 interview with THE GLOBE AND MAIL OF CANADA, he had this to say about his unemotional stage demeanor: ‘You cannot lose your control physically and be precise as to what your hands do. Can you imagine a surgeon operating on somebody, and swooning and looking up at the ceiling and being very excited about it? The patient would die. That is what happens in music too. The patient dies, because there’s too much going on besides the actual performance’.
In any case, as reviews over many years made clear, Mr. Weissenberg did sometimes give performances, or make recordings, that were simply, electrically, unequivocally breathtaking.
Alexis Sigismond Weissenberg was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, on 26 July, 1929. (He was billed as Sigi Weissenberg early in his career.) An only child, he was reared by his mother, a pianist from whom he took his first lessons.
In 1941, after Bulgaria allied itself with the Axis Powers, Sigi and his mother, who were Jewish, attempted to cross into Turkey using false papers. As Mr. Weissenberg recounted in an autobiographical essay on his Web site, alexisweissenberg.com, they were detained for several months at a concentration camp on the border. With the aid of a sympathetic German officer, who loved the Schubert that Sigi played on an accordion he had managed to bring with him, they were able to escape. Mother and son made their way to Istanbul and eventually to Palestine. There, Sigi, already a fine pianist, performed with the Palestine Symphony and other orchestras.
After the war, the young Mr. Weissenberg moved alone to New York, where he studied at the Juilliard School with the pianist Olga Samaroff and the composer Vincent Persichetti. In 1947, at 18, he won the Leventritt Award, a prestigious international music prize. He made his New York début the next year at Carnegie Hall, playing Chopin’s e minor Concerto with the New York Philharmonic under George Szell.
In the mid-1950s, Mr. Weissenberg moved to France. By then, critical opinion had begun to dog him, and engagements on major stages were drying up. He took a long sabbatical from public performance, spending a decade teaching and studying. ‘As a young artist I learned new works very fast and played them much too soon’, he told NEWSWEEK in 1977. ‘In 10 years I would have reached a point where my whole repertory would have been overplayed and understudied. I did not want to end up at the age of 50 still a ‘promising’ pianist’. He re-emerged in the mid-1960s, and by the 1970s was again performing widely.
That Mr. Weissenberg’s artistry was not to every taste was a subject about which he could eventually wax coolly philosophical. ‘I still don’t know why my playing is considered so disturbing’, he told THE TIMES in 1983. ‘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’.”
- Margalit Fox, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 9 Jan., 2012