Alexis Weissenberg – The Sigi Recordings, 1949-1955 = BACH (arr. Liszt): Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543; HAYDN: Sonata No. 52 in E-flat Major; SOLER: 3 Sonatas; CZERNY: La Ricordanza Variations, Op. 33; PROKOFIEV: Sonata No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 28; Suggestion Diabolique, Op. 4, No. 4; SCRIABIN: Etude Op. 8, No. 11 in B-flat Minor; Nocturne for the Left Hand, Op. 9, No. 2; LISZT: Funerailles; Sonetto del Petrarca No. 123; Sonetto del Petrarca No. 104; Valse-Impromptu; Sonata in B Minor – Alexis Weissenberg, piano – Doremi DHR-7987/8 (2 CDs), 79:50; 54:55 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
Bulgarian piano phenomenon Alexis “Sigi” Weissenberg (1929-2012) won plaudits over the years for his “trip hammer virtuosity, brilliant tone, a briskly commanding approach to the score…He was one of those comets in the musical sky that turned out be meteors.” Weissenberg was the winner at age eighteen of the eighth annual Leventritt Award. In 1948, with Leonard Bernstein, Weissenberg became the first pianist to play the Rachmaninov D Minor Concerto in Israel. Weissenberg made a ten-inch LP (c. 1950) for CBS (ML 2099) of Prokofiev and Scriabin; he then sojourned to Paris to record for the “boutique” Lumen label. Doremi restores these recordings which display a fleet, uncanny facility that might, in its cool efficiency, be likened to the Heifetz style of violin virtuosity. The transfers seem to have been taken from fairly well-preserved LPs rather than from master tapes, since a degree of crackle and clicks still remain present.
The opening Bach Prelude and Fugue in A Minor in the Liszt arrangement delivers a case in point: light, crisp, eminently diaphanous, it no less projects an air of utter, aesthetic detachment. The Haydn Sonata, particularly in its first movement, indulges the taste for toccata-style, playfully alternating masses of sounds, cascades, runs, and blistering scales in breathless motion. The Adagio, however, reveals Weissenberg’s capacity to shape a melody and invest a breath of life into its thoughtful procession. Verve and playful wit characterize the concluding Presto, the double notes and perky agogics perfectly in place, peppered with pregnant pauses and sudden explosions of color that do not confuse speed with crescendi. The accelerations alone warrant our admiration, as well as Weissenberg’s potent staccati and fortes that do not indulge in stultifying percussion.
The miniature, Spanish art of Padre Soler has its acolyte in Weissenberg, who performs the stately D Minor Sonata (No. 24) in glistening, galant style, a series of rustling, intimate veronicas of surpassing grace and beauty. A second Sonata in D Minor (No. 15) explodes into our consciousness, clearly an evocation of Scarlatti but more nervously vibrant. Almost a perpetuum mobile, the piece generates a scintillating momentum of its own. The last of the group, in C-sharp Minor (No. 21), enjoys those Spanish syncopations that keep us off balance in every delightful manner. The muted dynamics only increase the internal frenzy of the colors, whose liquid trills and mordants beguile us at every turn. The charming 1822 Variations on “La Ricordanza” (The Reminiscence) by Czerny after a theme by Rode, a Horowitz staple, capture the composer’s find recollection of a soprano, Angelica Catalani, and they permit Weissenberg to flaunt a marvelous singing tone.
The Prokofiev works naturally lend themselves to Weissenberg’s brilliant, audacious technique. The A Minor Sonata (”From Old Notebooks”), flamboyant and occasionally wistful, hurtles itself forward, often in sizzling percussion and sinewy agogics. The latter section plays like a Debussy Etude or a convulsive moment from Jeux d’artifice. Weissenberg builds a terrific tension for the final page, finishing with a wild flourish. The classic Suggestion Diabolique flutters and trembles with the requisite mania, but we could wish for a cleaner, more processed sound from the old vinyl.
Scriabin with Weissenberg proves a rare moment, both in the nocturnal Etude in B-flat Minor and the appropriately named Nocturne for the Left Hand, Op. 9. No. 2. The former projects erotic agitation barely contained; the latter’s liquid passion preserves the illusion that two hands collaborate in the voicing of dramatic and often-hushed intimacies.
The all-Liszt disc should prove essential to collectors and Liszt admirers. Funerailles bristles with portent and massive energy. Despite what we might characterize as a “patrician” approach, Weissenberg conveys the magisterial tragedy of the occasion, and his clarity of line testifies to a refined taste. He makes us wonder what his Chopin B-flat Minor Sonata would tell us. The touch and rubato Weissenberg applies to the two Petrarch Sonnets well suit the Liszt rhetorical style, although the acoustic sounds dry. The soft pedal and muted phrases of Sonnet No. 104 place Weissenberg well within the high tradition we know from Arrau and Bolet. Fluid salon music, the Valse-Impromptu exhibits a panache we might ascribe to Georges Cziffra, so fleet and suavely canny are the effects. The mighty B Minor Sonata receives a titanic approach; it seems no accident that Weissenberg once replaced Horowitz on short notice for a concerto appearance in Pittsburgh. The many moods and ecstasies that Liszt traverses in the course of his Sonata receive their due realization from Weissenberg, and the dreamy poetry remains intact even as the astonishing bravura often becomes an end in itself in the course of the composer’s perpetual transformations of his basic themes. Rarely has the fugato been taken with such fleet, visceral aplomb. The entire conception bespeaks an immensely gifted, audacious talent whose grasp of Liszt’s Herculean gestures never suffers a forced or false moment.
A gloriously vivid sonic document!