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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

Famous Sonatas

  • Sonata #21 in C Major "Waldstein", Op. 53
  • Sonata #14 in C Sharp minor "Moonlight", Op. 27/2
  • Sonata #23 in F minor "Appassionata", Op. 57
  • Rondo à Capriccio, Op. 129
Barbara Nissman, piano
Pierian 20 70:55
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Breathable Beethoven.

I've always thought of Barbara Nissman as a specialist in Modernism. I tend to recall her Bartók, her Prokofieff, her Scriabin, and her Ginastera. But she really plays all kinds of repertoire. In fact, Pierian has released a stack that shows her artistic breadth, and in the months to come, I'll be reviewing many of them. This CD comprises volume 1 of her Pierian Beethoven releases, and I must say I found new things about her playing that I hadn't realized.

When I was a teen, all my piano-playing friends played the "Moonlight" and the "Pathétique." A Schnabel LP introduced me to the sonatas other than those two: the "Waldstein" and the "Appassionata." I was a bit cool toward the "Appassionata," but the "Waldstein" knocked me out. My benchmark for Beethoven's sonatas as a whole remains Schnabel, although I would never say that he does equally well in all sonatas or that others haven't bettered him in particular sonatas. However, the virtues of his playing – electrifying rhythm, a sense of unstoppable momentum from start to finish – correspond to my conception of Beethoven in general. A suave Beethoven strikes me as not even a paradox, but a contradiction. My Beethoven has what I like to call "edges." I consequently refer all others to Schnabel, whose arthritic fingers work to his advantage in these scores.

At first hearing her "Waldstein," it seemed to me that Nissman had missed the mark. Indeed, as a know-it-all teen, I would have dismissed her interpretation as Just Plain Wrong. I've since come to think of difference as an opportunity to learn something. Beethoven is, after all, a composer who invites several different approaches. Obviously, Nissman's Beethoven isn't necessarily mine. A fruitful question to ask, then, is what the music becomes and whether it continues to compel. Nissman's opening doesn't drive like Schnabel's. Indeed, it's a hair more tentative, and she never does have the drive from start to finish of the first movement. For Nissman, the musical "shape" – or, better, narrative – means something else.

In his day, Beethoven was famous for his improvising, which those lucky enough to have heard it characterized as "wild" and "willful." With Nissman, we get a provisional quality to the music, as if she made it up on the spot. She puts out an idea, grabs hold of it and rides for a while, and then falls back to turn to something else, very likely related. In contrast, Schnabel seems in the grip of the music, more definite and less free. Nissman hesitates and pushes subtly, at the level of the micro-phrase, and this gives the music the illusion that it "breathes." You get this kind of playing most often with Chopin pianists, very rarely for Beethoven's music. Here, it works to give the sonata its improvisational spontaneity. In the second movement, Beethoven kind of writes that quality into the music – time sort of hangs, as the player gropes toward the sunburst that constitutes the last movement. Nissman makes more of a transition and more of a build than other pianists I've heard, not getting loud or urgent before the beginning of the first rondo episode, and she falls back plenty during the course of the movement. Consequently, her highs hit with tremendous force, and the rondo moves in the large like a juggernaut. I must also say this is the most cleanly-played "Waldstein" I've ever heard, particularly the piano fanfares at the first-movement climax.

I have no idea how many amateurs soulfully moon their way through the first movement of the "Moonlight" or how many recordings of the entire sonata have been committed. I do remember the most prestigious piano teacher in Cleveland forbidding his students working on the first movement until they could play the stormy last movement to his satisfaction. As for the pros, finding something new to say about it strikes me as awfully hard. My current favorite recording, Radu Lupu's, doesn't have that much originality, but it is indeed beautiful, as is Nissman's, and in much the same way. It's not that often you encounter a genuine rethinking of the sonata, like Istomin's. The brief, joyous scherzo second movement loses a bit of its mania and preciousness under Nissman's guidance. Here, her playing evokes the classic pastoral. The last movement confirms Nissman's instincts in general. She doesn't throw everything to the winds right away and all at once. Everything builds and falls back, so she reaches a peak several times, with always enough left over to go higher without banging. By the time she reaches the end, the those next-to-final bars practically pole-ax you and wring you out.

For me, however, Nissman's "Appassionata" constitutes the best part of the disc. This is a difficult sonata to find a key to, and I could name some famous virtuosi who left embarrassing, clueless accounts. All of Nissman's virtues come into play here – concern for the narrative architecture of an entire movement, plasticity of phrase, the appearance of spontaneity, the feeling that you're moving along with great and inevitable power. Above all, Nissman gives you an emotional maturity, most beautifully embodied in the first movement's second subject or in the main chorale-like theme of the second movement. In fact, her second movement stands as the finest I've heard. This is no hot-and-bothered teen or stormy Manfred, but someone who's seen much and reflected on experience. Nevertheless, there's plenty of passion here to go along with the meditative moments, particularly at the point where the second movement flows into the third and the end, where Nissman pours out Schnabels of electricity.

You also get the lagniappe of the "Rage over the Lost Penny," a late bauble in keeping with the distinctly odd world of the (grossly misnamed) Bagatelles, Op. 112. The composer has given us a comic portrait, whether of himself (a traditional speculation) or of somebody else, I have no idea. It's not "rage," as much as it is frantic. You can practically see the character bouncing off the walls, and yet you get an overall note of what I can describe best as "merry," a comic opera in little. Beethoven's having some fun. Nissman gets all of this.

In short, another winner from Pierian.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz