Some people used to think that a woman's place was in the home, but in the 1950s, there were plenty of good reasons to argue that her place was at the piano. Guiomar Novaes comes immediately to mind – if only more of her recordings would be reissued – and another pianist, even more forgotten in the CD era, is Nadia Reisenberg. She was born in 1904, and came to the United States from her native Lithuania (by way of Russia and Poland) in 1922. Shortly thereafter, she married, and my guess is that motherhood played at least some role in her becoming a chamber musician, and a recording and broadcast artist, rather than a highly peripatetic virtuoso.
Reisenberg made several LPs for the Westminster label in the 1950s. That's where everything on these four CDs comes from, with the exception of the sonata, which was recorded live in Carnegie Hall in 1947. She was not a Chopin specialist, per se, although his music consistently found a place in her concert programs. Her excellent training and strong technique allowed her to make a positive impact in everything she touched, from Haydn to Kabalevsky – other composers who were the focus of Reisenberg's Westminster recordings.
In the booklet notes by Robert Sherman (Reisenberg's son, and a well-known figure in classical broadcasting), he recounts a radio interview with his mother dating from 1974, in which he asked her about her Westminster LPs. In that interview, she stated, "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 comes first."
Her playing on these discs is as good as her word. This is exceptionally straightforward Chopin, so much so that one can understand why music critic Harold Schonberg, writing in The New York Times in 1957, called her playing on the original LPs "too perfect and hence lifeless." I don't agree, though. We go through phases in which we want Chopin to be played with considerable subjectivity (early Arthur Rubinstein, Martha Argerich, Ivo Pogorelich, etc.) and others in which we want his music to be played more objectively (late Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Ashkenazy, etc.), and Reisenberg's Chopin is much closer to the latter camp than to the former. Bejeweled yes, lifeless no.
The live Sonata, which understandably is in less good sound than the Westminster material, fittingly shows the more impetuous, spontaneous side of this pianist. She has a firm grasp on this work's big lines, and yet her playing is as detailed, from moment-to-moment, as in the smaller pieces in this treasury. In the first movement, for example, it is gratifying to hear how well she balances the imperious opening subject with the rapturous cantabile material that follows it a bit later. Reisenberg's Chopin is elegant but never streamlined or glib. Without becoming self-indulgent or losing her connection with the audience, she draws into herself, and into Chopin's private world. Those who love this sonata will find Reisenberg's poetic interpretation worth their while.
In addition to Sherman's words, the booklet also contains several photographs of Reisenberg, her friends, and her (very attractive) family. It also contains a photograph of her with Georges Enescu and Richard Tucker – and this is the only photo I've seen of the latter without a toupee! Reisenberg's pianism is just as arresting – but of course in a different way!
Copyright © 2009, Raymond Tuttle