Formidable pianist who brought a bracing physicality to an impressive range of works
The Bulgarian-born pianist Alexis Weissenberg, who has died aged 82 after suffering from Parkinson's disease, was a celebrated if controversial figure. The blockbusters of the piano repertoire – the Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky concertos among them – held no fears for him, since he had a prodigious and unquestionable technique. Yet, though his playing was often criticised for its lack of sensitivity, even brutality, at his best he brought a bracing physicality and an acute musical intelligence to bear on an impressive range of repertoire.
Weissenberg's early life was notable for a traumatic event that could nevertheless almost have been scripted for a Hollywood film. Aware of the dangers faced by Jews in eastern Europe, he and his mother attempted to flee Bulgaria for Turkey, but were captured and imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. He was saved by an accordion given to him by an aunt. A music-loving German guard allowed him to play each afternoon and eventually put the Weissenbergs on a train bound for Istanbul, tossing the accordion through an open window into their compartment as the train pulled out.
A native of Sofia, he had his first piano lessons from his mother, the family environment containing several Vienna Conservatory-trained musicians. He was then taken to one of Bulgaria's most prominent teachers, Pancho Vladigerov, at whose house he heard the great Dinu Lipatti play.
His first public recital, at the age of 10, included an etude of his own composition. With the onset of the second world war, however, and the Nazi advance across Europe, it soon became clear that the family was not safe. Following the fortunate escape from the concentration camp, he and his mother made their way from Turkey to Israel, where Weissenberg studied at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and performed with the Israel Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein.
In 1946 he migrated to the US, enrolling at the Juilliard School of Music in New York as a pupil of Olga Samaroff. The following year, having won the Leventritt International competition, he made his New York debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra under George Szell playing Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No 3 – a work that was to become something of a signature piece for him and of which he made three recordings, with Georges Prêtre, Seiji Ozawa and Bernstein.
Over the following decade he came to prominence in the US and Europe, but in 1957, having moved the previous year to Paris – eventually becoming a French citizen – he embarked on an extended sabbatical dedicated to rebuilding his technique and teaching. His return to the platform came in 1966 with a recital in Paris. Shortly after, he played Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No 1 in Berlin with Herbert von Karajan, with whom he was to make some significant recordings, including the complete Beethoven piano concertos for EMI. That recording was made in 1974, the same year in which he made his debut in the Royal Festival Hall, London.
Thereafter Weissenberg continued to grace the international circuit as a performer, teacher and jury member. Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy and Rachmaninov were the composers he recorded most frequently, but his repertoire also embraced Schumann, Bartók, Liszt, Mussorgsky and the Spanish composers Xavier Montsalvatge and Joaquín Turina.
His Bach – including the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, a prominent piece in his repertoire – was, it is true, muscular and athletic; stripped of rubato and other expressive devices, it could seem surgical and soulless. His Chopin could be both poetic and tempestuous: a Nocturne might begin as a calm reflection but build to an alarming, even aggressive climax. He was undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with.
• Alexis Sigismund Weissenberg, pianist, born 26 July 1929; died 8 January 2012
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