Notes and Editorial Reviews
Le Tombeau de Couperin.
Fantasie in C,
Pictures at an Exhibition
Alexis Weissenberg (pn)
ORFEO 869122 (2CDs: 101:31) Live: Salzburg 8/7/1972
Nocturne in c#,
Rhapsody in g,
Etude in F.
Jesu bleibet meine Freude,
My very first experience of Alexis Weissenberg’s pianism came with his rendition of Stravinsky’s
Three Movements from Petrushka
. Needless to say, I was speechless upon the discovery—completely and unequivocally spellbound by his playing. It is the kind of music that many critics find most suited to his temperament. The music is percussive, it is virtuosic, it is modern and unsentimental—in a sense one only need play the notes, as Stravinsky often claimed of his works, and the music will do the rest. But that gives too little credit to the pianist. Is every performance of this composition as exciting as Weissenberg’s? The answer is simply no.
Weissenberg has been labeled by many as a cerebral pianist—an unfeeling, yet unsurpassed technician at the keyboard. But that has much to do with his approach to the instrument. He was always one to remain still at the keyboard—all of his concentration went into the music itself. This was a necessary aspect of his playing. And anyone who thinks this little of him as an artist has not heard him at his best. His Ravel here, for example, is anything but a virtuosic
tour de force
. Not that the piece couldn’t be; in many pianist’s hands the Prelude is often played too quickly for all of its details to be brought out, saying nothing of their approach to the pyrotechnic Toccata which ends the suite. Weissenberg’s Fugue is especially spectacular: For the first time, one finally hears all of the individual linear strands, which in some pianist’s hands gloss over one’s ears more like a wash of sound. Which did Ravel prefer? It is hard to say. But he was well trained in the contrapuntal arts. The inner dance-inspired movements are all lighter in texture; he is rhythmic and driving in the “Forlane” and “Rigaudon,” more relaxed in the Menuet. The Toccata’s opening almost sounds slow; it is just a matter of time, though, before one realizes that the momentum that Weissenberg keeps throughout the work never allows the piece to drag. In this performance, he uncovers details that often get overlooked.
Weissenberg’s Schumann is nervous from the very onset. His Schumann is certainly virtuosic, yet it is also filled with moments of quiet reflection. This is not the most tender rendition of the work I’ve come across, but it is certainly one of the most thrilling—never has anyone so easily handled the infamous leaps in the second movement as does Weissenberg here. Which Schumann does one find in this work? In most performances Eusebius can be said to rule, but Florestan seems to have gripped the pianist here. In the Mussorgsky the pianist is not afraid to alter some of the figurations for effect (à la Horowitz, though far less drastic). He often seeks out orchestral sounds from his piano here. I have forever felt that Mussorgsky needs no help in these regards, though in a concert performance I understand theatrical dabbling. Weissenberg is a bit noisy at times, though he is still full of surprises: His “Bydlo” is not nearly as heavy as most—he favors staccatissimo bass chords, clearing the way for the melodic material above; his “Ballet of the Unhatched Chickens” is airy and playful. As a gift to his audience he concludes with five encores. The Chopin and Liszt works are crisp and clean in their more virtuosic moments, tender and lyrical in those of more repose. His pianissimos are enchanting. The Brahms is a bit fast and loud for my taste, but his aggressiveness surely pays off after two more subtle encores. The Moszkowski Etude has only been bettered by Horowitz. In Weissenberg’s performance it is, however, thrilling: The scales and arpeggios whiz before one’s ears at such a rate that one can glean no more than waves of sounds. Its quiet ending thrills the audience. The Bach, which ends the recital, is moving in its simplicity. It is the perfect conclusion, showing just how fine a musician he could be, even in the most tender, the most touching of passages.
If one does not know Weissenberg’s pianism, then one owes oneself the pleasure of getting to know it better. This live recital—not note perfect—is riveting not only for the technical accomplishment of the artist, but also for the highly intelligent and highly musical approach taken. This along with his stupendous performance of the aforementioned Stravinsky, and his illuminating and highly original take on Bach (the Partitas, the
Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue
on EMI) are also great places to start. Here’s to further musical discoveries!
FANFARE: Scott Noriega
Works on This Recording
Le tombeau de Couperin by Maurice Ravel
Alexis Weissenberg (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1914-1917; orch. 191; France
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