When I was first exploring the repertoire I acquired many terrific Alexis Weissenberg LPs, including one that remains a personal desert island disc, The Great Bach Transcriptions.
This recording is surprisingly rare now (my copy cost $2 in the early ‘90s) but some of it is on YouTube, including “Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g'mein.” When obsessing over this Bach-Busoni chorale prelude, at one point I decided that the Weissenberg was the best version I could find. It still sounds really good to me today.
The Bach-Busoni Chaconne from the same album also has a kind of granitic power. This afternoon I stood motionless in the middle of the room as the last couple of minutes wound its way to the top of the cathedral. (It’s better on LP: while listening with headphones to YouTube some edits can be discerned.)
Also on YouTube are two versions of the “Russian Dance” from Stravinsky's "Three Movements from Petrushka.” The more familiar final product by director Åke Falck is mimed to a recording (a specially built “silent” piano was made) but there is also a rehearsal with live music. There are a few finger slips in the live version but maybe it is even more exciting. Jeremy Nicholas has more on this famous film.
At times, Weissenberg's playing was a little weird. His phrasing could almost be monodynamic, verging even on the brutal. Regrettably I never saw him live (as far as I know, he didn't play in New York during the last two decades), but I cherish the description of a Weissenberg recital in David Dubal's The Art of the Piano:
After intermission, the pianist offered the seldom-played thirty-five minute Rachmaninoff First Sonata. Blocks of sound roared from his piano; it was pandemonium. He played as loud as anyone in the history of the piano. The contemplation of sonority is a complex issue. But those chords were not merely banged, or percussive either. Most important, this fairly problematic composition was compelling in Weissenberg’s hands because of his belief in his own playing.
I’ve never really liked his record of Rachmaninoff Sonatas; today, the First was almost excruciating, especially in the slow movement, where it sounds like the pianist is clenching his teeth and barking.
On the other hand, the disc of the Rachmaninoff Preludes is excellent, and many mid-century collectors considered his Rach 2 and 3 Concertos essential. Indeed, another perverse pianist, Glenn Gould, thought Weissenberg was the best interpreter of not just Rach 2 and 3 but also the two Chopin concerti! (Here, most would disagree with Gould.)
Not all the obits reported that Weissenberg was also a composer and transcriber. Marc-André Hamelin thought highly enough of an obscure collection of Charles Trenet songs rendered in high post-Godowsky fashion that he learned them from the 1950‘s recording. (Again, read Jeremy Nicholas for more details.)
Hamelin recorded these bon-bons on his album In a State of Jazz, which gets its name from Weissenberg’s most significant solo piano work, Sonate en état de jazz. This is not jazz, of course, but does have a fascinating harmonic language. I’m especially intrigued by the first movement, a fractured tango. On the studio record, Hamelin plays it as well as it can be played, but a live performance on YouTube is just as good and even includes the score.