In the mid-1960s Herbert von Karajan began seeking out directors interested in filming music in new ways. One such was the Swedish director Åke Falck (1925–1974) whose film of the Bulgarian-born virtuoso Alexis Weissenberg (1929–2012) playing the Three Movements from Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” had been brought to Karajan’s notice. After a private viewing, Karajan expressed an interest in meeting the pianist. “No problem,” he was told. “He’s sitting right behind you.”
A child prodigy, Weissenberg had studied in Sofia under Bulgaria’s leading pianist and composer Pancho Vladigerov (1899–1978) whose punishing First Piano Concerto the 18-year-old Karajan had played in Salzburg in 1926, damaging a tendon in the process. After Bulgaria’s annexation by the Axis Powers in 1941, Weissenberg and his mother fled to Palestine. Weissenberg quickly gained attention there and in the United States where in 1947 he won the Leventritt Prize. Important engagements followed but he quickly tired of touring. The performances of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto which he gave on film and in concert with Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1967 marked his return to the international scene.
Karajan generally reserved the Tchaikovsky concerto for special artists. He recorded it with Sviatoslav Richter and Lazar Berman and famously conducted it for the 17-year-old Evgeny Kissin in Berlin on New Year’s Eve 1988.
Where Falck’s filming of the Tchaikovsky is clearly experimental, the film of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto which Karajan himself directed in 1971 is more a musically informed concert hall report. Karajan loved Rachmaninov’s music and Weissenberg’s playing of it (Weissenberg’s RCA recording of the complete Préludes was one of Karajan’s favourite records). The Rachmaninov sound Karajan draws from the Berliner Philharmoniker recalls the sound on a famous series of recordings which Rachmaninov made with Leopold Stokowski’s Philadelphia Orchestra in the 1930s, recordings which Karajan knew intimately.