GENEVA — Bulgarian-born French pianist Alexis Weissenberg, whose love of music from the age of 3 saved him and his mother from a German-guarded camp during World War II and carried him to the musical heights of 20th century performances with Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, has died. He was 82.
Bulgaria's Ministry of Culture on Monday confirmed the death of Weissenberg, who was born into a Jewish family in the capital Sofia but spent most of his life abroad and became a French citizen.
"With deep regret I learned about the death of one of the greatest performers of the 20th century, piano virtuoso and world-known teacher of Bulgarian origin — Alexis Weissenberg," Culture Minister Vezhdi Rashidov said in a condolence letter posted on the ministry's website.
Weissenberg suffered from Parkinson's disease and died Sunday in Lugano, Switzerland where his family had settled, according to Bulgarian and Swiss news reports.
An only child, Weissenberg recalled sharing "musical joys" learning piano and listening to recordings and concerts with his mother, before studying piano with a famous Bulgarian composer, Pancho Vladigerov.
When he and his mother tried to flee German-occupied Bulgaria for Turkey with faked ID and visa papers in 1941, he recalled in an essay on his website, they landed in "an improvised concentration camp" in Bulgaria for people crossing the border illegally. He said the camp probably was intended to send people to Poland — and extermination.
They arrived with few belongings other than a small bag, a large cardboard box, a few sandwiches and an old accordion given him as a birthday gift by a wealthy aunt. And they were lucky: After three months in the unspecified camp, a German guard who enjoyed listening to him play Schubert on the accordion helped them escape by train.
"It was the same officer who decided one chaotic day to come and fetch us hurriedly, bring us to the station, push our belongings (still the cardboard box) through the door, literally throw the accordion through the window of the compartment," he recalled.
The guard told his mother "Good luck" in German, then vanished. A half-hour later, they were over the border and no one asked for passports. The next day they arrived in Istanbul.
He said luck "sometimes produces tiny miracles" and "our unexpected piece of luck was a musical instrument, the dear old accordion."
They wound up in Israel where he performed Beethoven with the Israel Philharmonic led by Leonard Bernstein. After the war, he moved to New York to study at the Juilliard School of Music. Then, in the 1950s, he moved to Paris and became a French citizen.
In 1966, he played Tchaikovsky with the Berlin Philharmonic led by Herbert von Karajan. In later decades, he gave numerous master piano classes, and his recordings of classics by composers such as Liszt, Schumann, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Chopin and Brahms became well known.
Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, contributed to this report.