Weissenberg's skill at playing Schubert on the accordion saved his life during World War II.
The Bulgarian-born pianist Alexis Weissenberg, whose musical talent as a youngster probably saved his life and that of his mother, died Sunday at age 82.
Weissenberg's career swung high and low. At its peak, he made recordings with Leonard Bernstein and Herbert Von Karajan and was hailed as a distinctive virtuoso. At its rock bottom, Weissenberg, weary from too much fame too fast, took a 10-year break, reemerging with a 1966 Paris recital and successful performances of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 with Karajan.
Weissenberg was born in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, in 1929 and began piano lessons at age 3. He gave his first recital at 10.
It was during World War II — in 1941, as he recalled on his website — that he and his mother packed a small bag, a few sandwiches and an accordion and fled to the border with fake ID papers:
My mother was interrogated during two infinite hours, after which we were placed in an improvised concentration camp with a probable design to a final destination, Poland and extermination. It is unnecessary here to describe the three months we spent there, it was no different from other camps, except that there were no tortures and no murder. Only three elements remained constant: silence, singing, and crying. The German officer who was given the responsibility of our bunker happened to like music enormously.
Luck is a nasty miscalculation which sometimes produces tiny miracles. Our unexpected piece of luck was a musical instrument, the dear old accordion. The German officer adored Schubert. He let me play in the late afternoon, and would come and listen from time to time. I remember him seated in a corner, near nobody, stone faced, expressionless, suddenly getting up and leaving with the same abruptness as when he walked in.
It was the same officer who decided one chaotic day to come and fetch us hurriedly, bring us to the station, push our belongings through the door, literally throw the accordion through the window of the compartment, and say to my mother, in German "Viel Glück" ["Good Luck"] and vanish. Half an hour later the train crossed the border. Nobody asked for a passport.
Weissenberg reportedly had long suffered from Parkinson's disease. He died in Lugano, Switzerland, where his family had moved.
Click on the audio link at the top of this page to hear pianist Kirill Gerstein talk about Weissenberg the man and the musician.
If you have any favorite Weissenberg memories, please tell us about them in the comments section. You can also read a more detailed obituary here from our colleague Brian Wise at WQXR.