Nadia Reisenberg - A Chopin Treasury

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CHOPIN Nocturnes: Nos. 1–20. Mazurkas: Nos. 1–49; in a, “Notre Temps”; in a, “A Emile Gaillard”; in B?, op. posth.; in D, op. posth.; in...

CHOPIN Nocturnes: Nos. 1–20. Mazurkas: Nos. 1–49; in a, “Notre Temps”; in a, “A Emile Gaillard”; in B?, op. posth.; in D, op. posth.; in C, op. posth.; in G, op. posth.; in D, op. posth. Barcarolle. Berceuse. Allegro de Concert. Piano Sonata No. 31 Nadia Reisenberg (pn) BRIDGE 9276, mono (4 CDs: 300:40) 1Live: New York 1947

Nadia Reisenberg was one of the great Chopin pianists of the 20th century. This statement presupposes a number of attributes on the artist’s part. Chopin was a fastidious and worldly man, who sought musical expression that was intensely refined and intricate. Despite this, his music must sound natural and interpretively effortless. It should be no surprise, therefore, that some of the great accounts of Chopin’s music are by wise old souls with a big technique, such as Nikita Magaloff and Witold Ma?cu?y?ski. Nadia Reisenberg, heard here in her 40s and 50s, similarly is a wise old soul who can do almost anything at the keyboard. She generally takes a moderate approach to tempo in Chopin, so that structurally everything holds together easily as the composer has written it in the music. Even so, Reisenberg always has time for a telling accent here and a useful rubato there, making her expression an organic part of the music. One of the most especially notable aspects of her playing is her pedaling, a truly underappreciated art in itself. In 1988 I heard Nelson Freire play Chopin’s Preludes and was mesmerized by his pedaling. The pedal even fluttered at times, as Freire gave every passage its appropriate sonic duration. Reisenberg is at least as much a master of the pedal as Freire is. She uses the pedal to provide just the right amount of color, accent, and shading to her playing. For so many young pianists, the pedal exists to create great washes of sound, thereby supposedly emphasizing their virtuosity. But Reisenberg, as an experienced chamber music player, knows how to integrate her pedaling into the total interpretation. She also realizes when to leave well enough alone and not to pedal for a notable passage, particularly in the mazurkas. Taken all together, the elements of Reisenberg’s pianism contain every facet of the art needed to yield Chopin interpretations which are striking and memorable.

Reisenberg recorded the nocturnes shortly after her husband’s death. This was a period of intense grief and stress for the pianist. A lesser artist might have used such circumstances to wallow in sentiment in her playing. Not Reisenberg; she found at this time a heightened sense of interpretive insight and coherence. Her sister, Clara Rockmore, said, “She never played anything more beautifully than those Chopin Nocturnes,” and I believe her. In the pre-electric light 19th century, these night pieces embodied a time of mystery and confided secrets, an atmosphere Reisenberg evokes completely. No. 1 proceeds with unruffled ease, like Schubert. No. 3 feels like nightfall observed from a house in the country. Reisenberg makes No. 4 truly Cantabile, with a fragile bel canto feel. She realizes an unusually singing left hand in No. 5. The B section of No. 6 possesses rare nobility. No. 7 sounds like music for the repose of the dead. No. 8 is a recollection of a time of sadness. Reisenberg interprets No. 10 as though it were a perfectly formed short story by Chekhov. No. 12 has the atmosphere of a child’s bedtime, while No. 13 is a study in almost Lisztian colors.

The second CD begins with an account of No. 15 that reminds me of two lovers seated together by candlelight. In No. 16, I think I can see a drowsy cat. A quiet conversation takes place in No. 17. No. 18 features an especially vibrant left hand. No. 19 is a real tearjerker. I feel that No. 20 is a recollection of one’s youth. Reisenberg omits No. 21, as does Nelson Freire. The recordings of the nocturnes I listen to most often are by Daniel Barenboim and Elisabeth Leonskaja, but Reisenberg accomplishes at least as much as they do. Her Barcarolle has a wonderful flexibility in mood and tempo, with an ebb and flow as the emotion builds. In the Berceuse, there is a tremendous feeling of fantasy, with kaleidoscopic colors. Stephen Hough’s timings in the Barcarolle and the Berceuse are similar to Reisenberg’s, but so much more happens in her performances. The only other recording I know of the Allegro de Concert is Claudio Arrau’s 1956 version. He tosses off the piece with considerable verve, but Reisenberg’s account is more involving. It is especially Russian in its singing tone, big sound, and rich drama—perhaps because she studied it with Leonid Nikolayev at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.

Reisenberg’s live 1947 Carnegie Hall Third Sonata is a major statement of the work. The opening movement is Maestoso in its accents and feeling of resolve, while the B section is especially wistful. There is no exposition repeat. Her Scherzo is gossamer. The Largo has a hushed intensity and achieves profundity with an apparent absence of effort. Reisenberg’s Finale is filled with pianistic fireworks. I compared her performance with two other live accounts by great Chopin exponents, Martha Argerich and Jakob Gimpel. Argerich in 1967 predictably is thrilling in the fast moments, but her interpretation lacks Reisenberg’s coherence and warmth. Gimpel in 1976 produces a rich-hued and glowing account, comparable to Reisenberg’s in impact but lacking her verve and élan. Her performance is primal in its conception.

Of the mazurkas Reisenberg said, “Maybe being Russian helped me feel the very special rhythms of these stylized dances.” They are “stylized,” like the difference between a medieval tapestry and a photograph. Reisenberg’s mazurkas generally are very earthy. These are not the mystical mazurkas of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Instead, we sometimes enter the folkloric world of Dvo?ák’s tone poems, with their goblins and witches. Reisenberg’s dance rhythms jump out at you, like the marches and rags in the later orchestral works of Charles Ives. No. 2 could portray a water sprite. In No. 5, two slightly tipsy peasants dance together at a wedding. No. 10 is Risoluto but with warmth and panache. Reisenberg unravels the subtle dance rhythms of No. 13 like a cat playing with a ball of string. No. 15 goes off like firecrackers. No. 19, with its Vivace marking but in a minor key, nearly evokes Jacques Brel. No. 20 has almost a drone bass. In No. 21, we perhaps are witnessing a slightly awkward flirtation. No. 26 is Maestoso, yet swings. A kind of idealized parlor music informs No. 29. An Oriental feel imbues No. 32. No. 34 is a Vivace dance by a giant. In No. 37, Reisenberg creates an organ-like sonority. No. 40 could be a ballad in poetry. No. 45 is characterized by a subtle realization of the Animato marking in a minor key. A ghost dances through No. 47. In Chopin’s last completed work, No. 49, Reisenberg’s playing is mildly ironic, perhaps the composer’s own attitude to his impending death. As much as I enjoy Alexander Brailowsky and Alexander Uninsky’s collections of the mazurkas, my preference now is for Reisenberg’s.

The original monaural Westminster recordings have come up very well on CD. The sound is close up, yet warm and well balanced. As for the 1947 live Third Sonata, it sounds excellent for its age, a tribute perhaps to the pre-renovation acoustics of Carnegie Hall. The remastering engineer also has resisted the temptation to reduce the surface noise from the original disc master, thereby preserving a warm sonority. The album notes by Reisenberg’s son, broadcaster Robert Sherman, are insightful and elegant. I rarely get to review an album as fulfilling as Reisenberg’s Chopin. I’ve spent over 20 hours in her company, and there has not been a dull moment. This is a pianist to treasure. Nothing passes her hands that isn’t full of life and deep understanding.

FANFARE: Dave Saemann

Product Description:

  • Release Date: October 14, 2008

  • UPC: 090404927621

  • Catalog Number: BCD9276A/D

  • Label: Bridge Records

  • Number of Discs: 4

  • Composer: Frédéric Chopin

  • Performer: Nadia Reisenberg