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Pierian 36

Volume 2

Barbara Nissman, piano
Pierian 36 75:53
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Versatile virtuosity and more.

The second in Barbara Nissman's projected ten-volume recital series. So far, the discs (I've heard five) are what you indeed would hear in a well-constructed recital, down to the encores. We have well-known monuments and out-of-the-way surprises. Nissman's breadth of repertoire impresses as well as, of course, the supreme level at which she plays. We're used to specialists these days. Nissman in many ways represents a throwback to an earlier type – the virtuoso who did everything, as well as one with an essentially Romantic approach.

I love, perhaps prefer, Bach's keyboard works on the piano rather than on the harpsichord. This may come down to the fact that I've preferred the pianists I've heard to the harpsichordists. Also, as much as I really love the sound of the harpsichord, I find the piano capable of much greater expression. This preference doesn't extend to the organ works, by and large. Given my druthers, I prefer listening to an organist. However, Busoni's piano transcription of Bach's organ Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue is just one of those pieces that work. I first heard it from Horowitz as the opening track to his "Historic 1965 Return" album. It opens with an electrifying yawp, so out of any particular key, one could fairly call it atonal, although it settles in by the third phrase to, of all things, C major. Although Nissman hasn't Horowitz's gargantuan tone (who does?), I think she makes a subtler approach. Not only does she clarify inner voices, she builds her interpretation on the idea of organ registration – two keyboards and pedals, three major planes of musical activity. And her bass notes really do resemble organ pedal tones, with a little "beard" on them. Nissman's long-range planning comes to the fore here. I especially admire her build to the end of the fugue.

Barber's Nocturne (1959), despite its subtitle, is less about Irish John Field (the supposed inventor of the Romantic nocturne) than about Chopin, whom Barber increasingly admired toward the end of his life. It's one of those Romantic pieces that could have been written only by a Modern. Those who know only Barber's early music – the First Essay, the Symphony #1, The School for Scandal overture, the Adagio, and even something like Knoxville: Summer of 1915 – may find themselves in for a slight shock. The beautiful diatonic lyricism has gone, replaced by more astringent singing. From the opening phrase, the sense of tonality is ambiguous, though not atonal. Nevertheless, Barber continues to sing. One encounters long, gorgeous lines with Chopinesque ornament, all in the service of a ruminative melancholy. Barber graduated from Curtis with a degree in piano (as well as in composition and in voice – I believe he's still the only triple-degree recipient from Curtis), so he knew something about writing for the instrument. Indeed, I don't see how pianists can stay away from something so impeccably-written.

Aside from his organ music and the Piano Quintet, I can pretty much leave César Franck alone. I hear from his fans about his grasp of form, but it's precisely that which strikes me as so clunky and so disappointing. Fortunately, I alone don't represent the Judgment of Posterity, and the Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue has had a number of classic and recent recordings – why, I can't tell you. Nissman thinks of the piece as an homage to Bach, and I can see her point. However, it's Bach filtered through somebody like Saint-Saëns. The fugue, past its first exposition, becomes a faux-fugue pretty rapidly. To borrow a phrase from Tovey, the contrapuntal texture boils away to rags, and it has much more in common with a salon morceau. A bell-ringing motif from the chorale shows up in the finale of the fugue for no good structural reason. Indeed, Franck holds the entire piece together with musical duct tape. Nissman commits and plays well, but Lord! what thin material!

Fortunately, much more goes on in Beethoven's Waldstein sonata, the first one I heard beyond the Moonlight and the Pathétique. My father brought home an LP of sonatas 20-22 by Schnabel, which also introduced me to Schnabel and opened me up to Beethoven's entire set. The Waldstein knocked me sideways and continues to do so. For me, it's a highpoint among all piano sonatas, not just Beethoven's – daring in its conception and electrifying in its working out, almost archetypal in its handling of the sonata-allegro process. I've heard many pianists play it. For me, no one touches Schnabel, the recording I imprinted on, despite all its clams. It fluctuates between the weight of the opening repeated-note motif and the neurotic electricity of the final fanfares in the opening movement. It suspends time in the second movement. The finale lets the music flow like a river to falls and rapids and, over a very long span, releases to pure joy.

Nissman, like everybody else, doesn't put out Schnabel's watts, but she does give an elegant, poised, and exciting reading. In the first movement, she occasionally inserts what I'd call "structural hesitancies," momentary hitches in the line that emphasize the basic building blocks of the movement. Also, this is the most cleanly-played Waldstein I've ever heard. I can't hear a single splonk. Of course, I remember mainly Schnabel, whose fanfares especially served up acres of clams. But he was by no means alone. Before I finally saw the score, I assumed that Beethoven had written those clinkers in. Her second movement is wonderful up to the transition to the finale, which seems to me a bit abrupt and disconnected, but I can't fault her anywhere else. Her finale for me surpasses everybody but Schnabel and, I think, equals him. Nevertheless, the readings differ significantly. I find a desperation – indeed, a near-hysteria – in Schnabel's account. Nissman replaces neurosis with sanity. She plays this music as if it's the most natural, heart-lifting song in the world.

While I prefer Granados to Franck, his music doesn't touch me that deeply. "Quejas ó la Maja y el Ruiseñor" (laments, or the maiden and the nightingale) nevertheless stands as one of the most poetic of Granados's Goyescas. An icing of gentle Spanish Schmerz spreads over an essentially Chopinesque idiom. Nissman gives a moonlit quality to the music. By the way, she does spectacularly well in real Chopin, too, as demonstrated by her all-Chopin disc on Pierian 19, which I enthusiastically recommend.

Nissman gives us a couple of "her" specialties – two of the three Argentinian Dances, Op. 2, by Ginastera. As you can tell by the low opus number, this work comes relatively early, when Ginastera was still a student. The "Danza de la moza donasa" (dance of the gracious maiden) looks back to Granados, Albéniz, and especially Falla in its leanness and the finish of its workmanship, evoking a languorous summer day and a pretty girl. The "Danza del gaucho matrero" (dance of the clever cowboy) plunks us down in the middle of High Modernism – Bartók on the pampas – full of stamping intricate cross-rhythms. It reminds me strongly of the last movement of Bartók's 1926 piano sonata, but with a definite Latin-American melodic and rhythmic flair. Ginastera and Nissman leave you breathless. She has recorded the complete set on an all-Ginastera program (Pierian 5/6), also recommended, natch.

Hearing her absolutely bewitching account of Debussy's "Claire de lune" makes me want an all-Debussy disc from Nissman. "Claire de lune," despite its well-deserved popularity, is nevertheless a tricky piece in which to hit the proper emotional note. You can easily wallow, and the sweetness of the music can cloy. Nissman, like an Aeolian harp, lets the music move through her. The slight distance makes the music even more beautiful.

I've made up my mind to review every Nissman disc that comes my way. For my money, she's one of the great pianists of my time, and probably other times as well. Anybody who has the bucks to record a concerto would do music a great service by giving them to her.

Copyright © 2011, Steve Schwartz.

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