Finally, this hour, we remember a musician who was known for his precision.


CORNISH: That's Alexis Weissenberg playing Chopin's "Etude for Piano No. 3 in E Major." In 1982, New York Times critic Bernard Holland called one of his performances chillingly scientific. That same critic, a year later, concluded this after another performance: Judging from the unrelenting applause at the end, Mr. Weissenberg impressed his listeners deeply. One may agree or disagree, but one pays him heed. He is never boring. Alexis Weissenberg died Sunday at the age of 82.


CORNISH: Kirill Gerstein is a pianist who calls Weissenberg his mentor.

KIRILL GERSTEIN: I think he was not at all cold, neither as a person nor as a musician. I think there was a burning intensity that you could always sense. At the same time, it was a burning intensity that was not frivolous or one that was just on the spur of the moment, instinctive one.


GERSTEIN: I think he held this fire that sometimes came across as violent. And this process of holding his intensity and controlling it tightly, this meeting of energy and control, I think it was very much an honest manifestation of how he was as a person and what he believed as a musician. And this won him admiration of many musicians.

CORNISH: Alexis Weissenberg was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1929. He was an only child, and his mother began teaching him to play the piano. He told Kirill Gerstein a story about the impact music had on him at an early age.

GERSTEIN: As a young child, even though he was born into a Jewish family, his grandmother would take him to a Bulgarian Orthodox Church where he would hear this typical sound of the Orthodox choir. And he told me that he remembers once hearing this deep, deep bass of the priest singing a prayer, and he instinctively ran towards the priest and just put his ear to the stomach of this man while he was singing one of these ultra-low notes. And the priest, instead of pushing him away, he actually embraced him, and he said that he always remembered for the rest of his life, and he said that it - he felt that it was really an influence on how he perceived music.


CORNISH: There is a dramatic backstory in the life of Alexis Weissenberg. In 1941, Bulgaria allied itself with the Nazis. Weissenberg and his mother fled, carrying with them only sandwiches and an old accordion. That accordion proved fateful. He and his mother were caught at the border and sent to an improvised concentration camp. It just so happened that a German officer there enjoyed listening to Weissenberg play Schubert on that accordion. One day, the officer unexpectedly took them to the train station and said good luck. And that train delivered them to Istanbul and to safety.


CORNISH: After the war, Weissenberg made it to New York, where he studied at Juilliard. Later, he lived in France and Switzerland. In addition to performing, he taught master classes. Kirill Gerstein studied with him and said he leaves as part of his legacy many young pianists who he touched through his teaching.


CORNISH: Alexis Weissenberg had been ill with Parkinson's disease. He died Sunday at the age of 82.



You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.