17 February 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Karajan artists: Alexis Weissenberg – a friend at the piano

He was admired by Horowitz and Glenn Gould, by Bernstein and Giulini and he was Karajan’s favourite pianist: Alexis Weissenberg.

Their artistic collaboration began with Tchaikovsky in 1967 and lead to Bach, Rachmaninov, Franck and Brahms. Over the years they became friends and performed concerts all over the world. Karajan’s only recording of the complete Beethoven piano concertos was produced with Alexis Weissenberg and the Berlin Philharmonic in 1977.

“This is music-making that is oblivious of the world’s show, music-making among friends on terms of their own devising.”

Richard Osborne on Karajan and Weissenberg performing Beethoven

In 1979, Karajan conducted a concert for the West-German chancellor Helmut Schmidt in the Philharmonie. Schmidt suggested some Gershwin and Karajan agreed to conduct the “Rhapsody in Blue” but only with Weissenberg at the piano, and so it happened. It remained Karajan’s only performance of a Gershwin piece ever. And it was the last concert both artists performed together. Weissenberg also worked with Karajan protégés like Seiji Ozawa, Riccardo Muti and Anne-Sophie Mutter.

“In 1966, Herbert von Karajan planned to make a film of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 with Sviatoslav Richter. He was looking for a suitable director, and a screening was organised for him of an innovative film directed by Åke Falck, an assistant to Ingmar Bergman. It featured Alexis Weissenberg playing Stravinsky’s ‘Three Movements’ from Petrushka and had been shot the previous year in Stockholm. Weissenberg asked to attend the screening incognito. Karajan was so impressed with the pianist he was watching that he asked to meet him. ‘Nothing could be easier,’ he was told. ‘He’s sitting right behind you.’”

Sarah Kirkup, Gramophone

This film of Mozart’s piano concerto No. 21, recorded 1978 in Paris, really is something special. Karajan performs it with Alexis Weissenberg. For the second movement Weissenberg leaves the piano stool to Karajan and takes a seat in the audience. Karajan plays and conducts the Berlin Philharmonic. For the third movement they change back again. Watch here!


We’ve prepared playlists with Karajan and Alexis Weissenberg. Listen to them here.


Sarah Kirkup in Gramophone, 10 January 2012

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