One of the greatest sets of the Mozart Piano Concertos is also one of the most elusive. Nadia Reisenberg (1904-1983), the immensely gifted Lithuanian pianist who emigrated to America but always seemed to fly under most critics’ radar, has (perhaps surprisingly) established herself as a major pianist of the 20th century only in the years since 2008, more than a century after her birth. Her son, well-known New York radio show host Robert Sherman, thinks this is because there were “so many other great and unique pianists around when Mother was active,” and yes, this is part of the answer. The rest of it is two-pronged. One, she was so good that she quickly went into teaching, first at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and then later at Juilliard, and by the early 1950s these teaching duties came to overshadow her recordings and personal appearances (though she occasionally concertized until the end of her life), and two, her kid sister happened to be one of the most famous and unique musicians in the Western world: theremin player Clara Rockmore. Originally a violinist, Clara had to give that instrument up after she permanently injured her bowing arm in the late 1920s, but Russian electronics whiz Leon Theremin came to her rescue with his odd, whining wooden box that only Clara seemed able to coax real music out of. (RCA Victor, trying to capitalize on Rockmore’s fame, actually marketed theremins in the early years of the Depression, 1929-30. They lost a fortune on the venture because 1) the theremins were very expensive—$232 with the vacuum tubes—and 2) no one else could get much out of them other than whines and whoops.)
But I digress. Reisenberg, originally a pupil of Leonid Nikoleyev at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, later restudied with Josef Hoffmann in New York in 1930. By the end of that decade she was, at the very least, one of the most sought-after pianists in the New York-Philadelphia axis (in the mid-1940s she was chosen to accompany Benny Goodman in a recording of the Brahms Clarinet Sonata for Columbia), and thus came to the attention of Alfred Wallenstein. Like Clara Rockmore, Wallenstein had himself switched careers by then. Initially one of the top orchestral players in the world, he had served as first cellist under the great but now-forgotten conductor Alfred Hertz at the San Francisco Symphony, then with the Los Angeles and Chicago orchestras before working under Arturo Toscanini in the New York Philharmonic-Symphony. Toscanini was so impressed with his musical acumen and ability to lead his section that he encouraged Wallenstein to become a conductor, which he did in the early 1930s. By 1939 he was music director of the WOR Radio Symphony Orchestra, and in that capacity he invited Reisenberg to prepare and perform the entire canon of Mozart piano concertos for the next season.
It was a project of wild ambition. One must recall that, at that time (and really, even into the 1950s), the only Mozart concertos that were probably well known by serious music lovers were Nos. 20, 21, 24 and 27. I seriously doubt that even Reisenberg knew many more than those four; certainly, the WOR Symphony barely knew any of them. Moreover, this was not a project that had a lot of preparation time. Both Wallenstein and Reisenberg probably had little more than four months to learn all of this music, and then they had to perform it live—not in a recording studio where they could splice out errors—week after week after week between September 12, 1939 and March 26, 1940. The orchestral musicians’ lack of familiarity with the material is more evident than Reisenberg’s; there are several dropped notes and wrong notes, particularly in the first movements, throughout the performances of the less-well-known concertos. In addition, despite Wallenstein’s excellent musical skills, this was an orchestra that, although obviously professional, wasn’t on a par with Toscanini’s NBC Symphony. The fact that they did as well as they did, playing unfamiliar material live, is a tribute to the conductor’s great skills, but it is for Reisenberg’s playing that the series remains stunning.
Her playing is simply extraordinary, and in fact within these precious performances one can hear in microcosm why Reisenberg is now considered one of the greatest musicians of her time. She plays these concertos with infinite care, constantly coloring and shading the musical line in such a way that she manages to give some emphasis to the occasionally strange, out-of-tonality excursions that Mozart put into the concertos (he wrote to his father that his music sounded simple enough to the amateur listener that it was tuneful and attractive, but contained some twists and turns that made it interesting) without exaggerating anything; and does this without the precious, overly-delicate Mozart playing one later heard from such pianists as Clifford Curzon, Alicia de Larrocha or Murray Perahia.
The question then presents itself: how do these performances sound in light of the historically-informed bias of today? To my ears, pretty good, but if you read my article on HIP practices you’ll know that I’m not a fan of most of the bizarre, white-sounding, wimpish orchestras and period pianos now used in many Mozart recordings. Yes, Reisenberg uses a 20th-century concert grand, not a pianoforte of Mozart’s time. Get over it. The orchestra, however, is probably a lot closer to what Mozart himself had to work with than we realize. Again, reading letters from Mozart to his father, one is bombarded with his constant carping about the flubs and dropped notes in the orchestras he himself rehearsed and conducted. But I rush to point out that the WOR orchestral playing isn’t consistently poor. More often than not, it’s just somewhat colorless…but since HIP practices encourage drab, colorless playing (albeit with Straight Tone), these performances fit right in.
Since each weekly program was a half-hour and some of the concertos didn’t run that long, Reisenberg filled in the remaining time with contrasting music of other composers and centuries. These, too, are valuable performances, particularly since Reisenberg never recorded most of them elsewhere. Among the gems are the Four Polish Dances of Alexandre Tansman, excerpts from Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin, Poulenc’s Suite in C and Trois Mouvements Perpetuels, Scriabin Etudes, Medtner’s Fairy Tales, Shostakovich’s Five Preludes, plus music by Godowsky, Mendelssohn, Palmgren and Liszt. And what makes these performances so fascinating—to me, at least—is the way Reisenberg is able to turn her mental image of the music on a dime from the 18th-century style of Mozart to this far more modern aesthetic. Indeed, so many listeners (and critics) tend to connect Reisenberg so much to traditional repertoire (particularly that of Chopin and Brahms) that I’m sure several of these performances of modern music—and their idiomatic “rightness”—will come as a bit of a surprise.
The recordings were made off the air by an anonymous recordist, probably using a Presto recorder (the preferred method by which private citizens recorded radio programs at that time). But not everything has survived. The beginning of the last movement of the Concerto in F, K. 459 is missing, as is most of the last movement of Concerto No. 11, K. 413, and our unknown recordist was apparently ill on October 31, 1939, the week Reisenberg and Milton Kaye played a two-piano arrangement of the Concerto for Three Pianos, K. 242, so that entire work is lost. Nonetheless, with most of the series intact, it is a valuable and important group of very unique performances that deserve to be heard.
So why haven’t other critics written about them? Because they’re not available for sale in the conventional way. In 1987, the airchecks of these precious broadcasts—the only surviving copies—were donated to the International Piano Archives at Maryland State University (IPAM) as part of a large Nadia Reisenberg Collection. The recordings can only be obtained in return for a monetary donation to IPAM, $15 for each disc you want or $200 for the full set of 14 CDs. Checks or money orders should be made payable to “University of Maryland College Park Foundation” and sent to:
Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library
University of Maryland
2511 Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center
College Park, MD 20742
The contents of each CD (with audio cleaned up and restored by Seth Winner) are as follows:
CD 1: Concerto No. 1 in F, K.37 (with encores: TANSMAN: Four Polish Dances) (September 12, 1939)
Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat, K.39 (with encores: GODOWSKY: Three Dances; POULENC: Suite in C) (September 19, 1939)
CD 2: Concerto No. 3 in D, K.40 (with encores: RAVEL: Minuet from Tombeau de Couperin; FRANCAIX: Scherzo) (September 26, 1939)
Concerto No. 4 in G, K.41; Concerto in D (after J.C. Bach), K.107/1 (with encore: TOCH: The Juggler) (October 3, 1939)
CD 3: Concerto in G (after J.C. Bach), K.107/2; Concerto in E-Flat (after J.C. Bach), K.107/3 (with encores: SHOSTAKOVICH: Five Preludes: CHOPIN: Mazurka, Op.68/4; RAVEL: Rigaudon from Tombeau de Couperin) (October 10, 1939)
Concerto No. 5 in D, K.175 (with encores: POULENC: Trois Mouvements Perpetuels) (October 17, 1939)
CD 4: Concerto No. 6 in B-Flat, K.238 (with encores: MENDELSSOHN: Three Songs Without Words) (October 24, 1939)
(Concerto No. 7, K. 242 is for three pianos was performed in an arrangement for two pianos in the broadcast of October 31, which is missing)
Concerto No. 8 in C, K. 246 (November 7, 1939)
CD 5: Concerto No. 9 in E-Flat, K.271 (November 14, 1939)
Double Concerto (No. 10) in E-Flat, K.365 (Milton Kaye, second piano) (with encore: ROGER-DUCASSE: Clarionerie) (November 21, 1939)
CD 6: Concerto No. 12 in A, K.414 (with encores: MOMPOU: Cancion y Danza No. 2; PROKOFIEV: Prelude, Op.12/7) (December 12, 1939)
Concerto No. 13 in C, K.415 (with encore: PALMGREN: Refrain de berceau) (December 19, 1939)
CD 7: Concerto No. 14 in E-Flat, K.449 (with encores: LISZT: Transcendental Etude No.10; PALMGREN: Two Finnish Dances) (December 26, 1939)
Concerto No. 15 in B-Flat, K.450 (with encores: SCRIABIN: Etudes, Op.8/2 and 12) (January 2, 1939)
CD 8: Concerto No. 16 in D, K.451 (with encore: CHOPIN: Nocturne, Op.55/2) (January 9, 1940)
Concerto No. 17 in G, K.453 (January 16, 1940)
CD 9: Concerto No. 18 in B-Flat, K.456 (January 23, 1940)
Concerto No. 19 in F, K.459 (beginning of third movement missing) (January 30, 1940)
CD 10: Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K.466 (February 6, 1940)
Concerto No. 21 in C, K.467 (February 13, 1940)
CD 11: Concerto No. 22 in E-Flat, K.482 (February 20, 1940)
Concerto No. 23 in A, K.488 (with encore: DEBUSSY: Arabesque No.2) (February 27, 1940)
CD 12: Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K.491 (March 5, 1940)
Concerto No. 25 in C, K.503 (March 12, 1940)
CD 13: Concerto No. 26 in D, K.537 (March 19, 1940)
Concerto No. 27 in B-Flat, K.595 (March 26, 1940)
CD 14: Concert Rondo in D, K.382; Concert Rondo in A, K.386 (with encores: MEDTNER: Fairy Tales, Op.26/3 & 34/2; GLAZUNOV: Gavotte, Op.49/3) (November 28, 1939)
Concerto No. 11 in F, K.413 (most of last movement missing) (with encore: RACHMANINOFF: Etude-Tableau Op.33/2) (December 5, 1939)
Being broke, I was only able to afford half of the series. Since I had good recordings of some of the later concertos (by such pianists as Clara Haskil and Rudolf Serkin), I chose CDs #1, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, and 12, but believe me, if I could afford them I’d have gotten the entire series.
They’re that good.
— © Lynn René Bayley 2016