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Nadia Reisenberg: A Chopin Treasury - Studio & Concert Recordings (1947-1957)

img  Tobias Fischer

Nadia Reisenberg (1904-1983) was little known to be a Chopin specialist during her lifetime. In fact, she never approached the composer with this identity nor as a pianist who knew exactly how everything should be done on the keyboard. Who would? Instead, Ms. Reisenberg was a humble, pure hearted musician. “…[Reisenberg] sought out the emotional heart of every piece she played and approached Chopin in awe of his creative magic,” said Robert Sherman, the pianist’s son, in his personalized liner notes from this most recent Bridge 4CD set ‘Nadia Reisenberg - A Chopin Treasury – Studio & Concert Recordings 1947-1957.’ Indeed, it was not until the present Bridge release earlier in October did many of us pianophiles and collectors realize what a treasure box of Chopin performances had unfolded in front of our eyes and ears. During her lifetime, the Jewish-American pianist performed few of Chopin’s works in public. Bridge had generously reminded us what a true blessing a Chopin evening with Nadia Reisenberg must be, with a complete Chopin B Minor Sonata from her last solo recital at Carnegie Hall in 1947.

Throughout her years as a concert pianist, Ms. Reisenberg’s repertory encompassed a full depth and breath, ranging from Haydn to the American premières of concerti by then modern composers as Schöenberg and Stravinsky. In the 1940’s and 50’s, at the heights of her performing career, she made signature performances on rarely heard works by d’Indy, Kabalevsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, including a daredevil account of Prokofiev 3rd Piano Concerto with Artur Rodzinski in 1941. In the decades to follow, Ms. Reisenberg dedicated her life to her first love: chamber music. These included several pinnacle recordings that survived to this day on 78s and LPs: a unified performance of Brahms Clarinet Sonata with Benny Goodman, an undisguised magnificence and lyrical account of Strauss Violin Sonata with Erick Friedman and what must be a purist’s approach of Mendelssohn Trio with members of the Juilliard String Quartet in 1980.

Nadia Reisenberg spent his life in search for a kind of honesty and perfection as an interpreter, a servant of music. She knew this perfection to be impossible, but for an artist of her insights and values, ‘perfection’ was an unison between composer and the player. Then, this perfection was not at all impossible. She once placed this ideology into words: “I’ve always aimed for simplicity in my conceptions. I hate doing anything ‘original’ for its own sake, and while I feel everything I play very deeply, the music always come first. I have no right to meddle with it. As a result, many of the basic values are still there, even after twenty years. I might play certain things more simply now, or with greater refinement – after all, I am a few years older! – but I would still try to get at the truth of the music, and that truth hasn’t changed.” To this end, she passed on this indispensable tradition of values onto her students, when she dedicated the latter part of her life after 1950 in becoming a much admired pedagogue. Many of her students had made successful careers independently, among her best-known: Natan Brand, Myung Whun Chung, Richard Goode, Andrew Litton, Steven Lubin, and Morey Ritt. Now, in their own individual musical voices, the artistry of Ms. Nadia Reisenberg continued to live and resonate through each of them - defined by clarity, integrity and refinement.

‘Nadia Reisenberg – A Chopin Treasury’ contained the legendary Chopin recordings from 1947-1957 that Ms. Reisenberg valued most deeply above all. The complete Nocturnes, for instance, was recorded at a time when the pianist was interrupted personally by the death of her husband. However, with desperation came pouring inspiration: beauty of musical phrases, an almost organic ‘presence’ lived within each twenty of them, and each note emitted like a living breath off a musical mind. To this end, the pianist’s sister once remarked: “The release of such deep sorrow through her music [the Nocturnes] may have saved her sanity … she never played anything more beautifully than those Chopin Nocturnes.” What made these Nocturnes an indispensable item came not from one quality alone, but rather a combination which included an extraordinary ear for harmonic motion and development. Listen to how Ms. Reisenberg felt and understood each note as she painted the wide range of colours from the instrument – a flowing legato that virtually eliminated bar-lines, and perhaps, most notably in an infinite breath of dynamics. She produced more shades and variations between mp and pp than almost any pianists, except a small number of her equals. She built the climax at precisely the right pivot point, and time after time, the listener caught up to one’s own breath at particularly the felicitous turn of phrase. This was playing that drew the listener deeper into the music. As much as credits should be given to the pianist’s efforts, one should not be drawn solely to Ms. Reisenberg’s achievement, but that of Chopin’s. The music flown with such an utterly natural and emotional power that one could not imagine it going any other way.

The Barcarolle in F Sharp Major (Op.60) and Berceuse in D Flat Major (Op.57) that follow sounded compact, well-studied, and neither sobered down to agile finger virtuosity nor softened down to an elegy. The musical form of a Barcarolle and that of a Berceuse was ostentatiously existent. Despite these positive attributes, the Barcarolle suffered from a general lack in fluidity, at times even edgy and sharp by ear. In contrast, the Berceuse delivered a sentiment of melancholy that had grace, and together with her unorthodox choice of tempo, it added an extra layer of excitement. The rarely heard Allegro de Concert in A Major (Op.46) was likewise a dramatic account that stood en par to Claudio Arrau’s vintage interpretation from the same period.

One of the highlights in this collection was a live account of Chopin’s Sonata No.3 in B Minor, taken during a live concert performance in the winter of 1947. Though there were clearly difficult encounters during this performance where Ms. Reisenberg suffered from tempestuous crashes, wrong notes, and impulsive swings, it was nonetheless a living account of her boundless and gallant efforts. Ms. Reisenberg took a brood tempo for the first movement Allegro maestoso, allowing Chopin’s modal counterpoint to transmit through the second subject, basked with the freshness of Polish air. The development became thick without falling into the trap of emotional pretentiousness. Ms. Reisenberg had a few finger slips at the end of the movement before proceeding to the gnarly second movement Scherzo, which she took off rather gingerly. Despite these flaws, the music enjoyed the shades of a scenic picture-piece. The third movement Largo sought a balance between the Nocturne and the Barcarolle, in which the pianist inspired with her repeated arpeggios and colourful chords in a singing reverie. Herculean efforts moved the fourth movement Presto forward, together with Ms. Reisenberg’s impetuous and galloping figures. It produced the audacity of someone one to two generations younger than her. At the very last chord, the audience came in with full applause for its appreciation for the gallant efforts.

Two full discs of Chopin’s Mazurkas, fifty-six miniatures in total, came by as a fantastic inclusion in this collection. Ms. Reisenberg played these Mazurkas with greater human regard than most others – a sonic beauty and a subtle tone that left the listener in awe to partake in the listening experience. They were also expansive, scenic, and interestingly, full of dynamic extremes – the latter quality somewhat unexpected for a Chopin Mazurka form. What also piqued the listener’s interest here was her intuitive sense of the stuttering 3/4 mazurka rhythm, which was exquisite. The quality and variety in her approach was an underpinning element that gave great vitality in her playing, similarly in her Nocturnes. For instance, listen to her B Flat Minor Mazurka (Op.24 No.4), as she made the two simultaneous melodies in the right hand sung delicately over the interlacing accompaniment in the left, with marvelous skills. Granted, many of these Mazurkas were considerably longer than the average performances (as in A Minor, Op.7 No.2; in A Flat Major, Op.17 No.3; in B Flat Minor, Op.24 No.4; in C Sharp Minor, Op.41 No.1; in A Flat Major, Op.50 No.2; to name but a few). But, as a result, the slower tempi gave the listener more breathing room and imaginative space to intertwine each of these fifty-six gems into one flowing dialogue. What was equally impressive during this entire process was Ms. Reisenberg’s ability to turn an expansive Mazurka, like the A Minor Mazurka (Op.17 No.4) and the D Flat Major Mazurka (Op.30 No.3), into the likes of a miniature tone-poem, wonderfully mixed with her style of aching melancholy and poetic radiance. In Ms. Reisenberg’s own words, who reminisced on her memories performing these Mazurkas, they were a tad more challenging to perform than the Nocturnes: “I love them [Mazurkas] too … and maybe being Russian helped me feel the very special rhythms of these stylized dances. They need so much freedom and rubato and fantasy, yet they must be focused and planned out at the same time.”

The overall collection was superbly transferred by Seth Winner from well-preserved original Westminster LPs from 1955-1957. Will it be too much to hope for more Reisenberg recordings, where the fruits documenting much of her recorded artistry are possession at the International Piano Archives in Maryland and at the Library of Congress? Pianophiles and record collectors could only be patient and wish at this time for more treasure chests to be unearthed. It was a lovely gesture that Bridge had chosen to issue this set on 4CDs, following previous releases on Ivory Classics and VAI. Now, you have all got us teased. Please continue to celebrate this woman’s wonderful artistry with more future releases – we can only be patient for so long.

By: Patrick P.L. Lam

Homepage: Nadia Reisenberg
Homepage: Bridge Classics

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