Summary for the Busy Executive: A standout "Hammerklavier," merely superb everything else.
This entry in the projected 10-disc set shows off Barbara Nissman's penchant for both the classics and for the out-of-the-way. Nissman early on got stuck with the label of Modern Music Specialist because of commanding recordings of Scriabin, Ginastera, and Prokofieff, but, truth be told, she can play magnificently anything she sets her mind to, including the classics. I find her especially strong in the Romantics, as well as in the Moderns. Her recording of the Rachmaninoff Études tableaux blew me away.
Although I may niggle over a passage or two, I must say I admire her individuality. You don't catch her in a cookie-cutter interpretation, not even her own, when she records pieces she's already committed to disc. I also like the way she builds programs. Sometimes you can discern themes, sometimes not. However, there's always an interesting mix of the familiar and the not-so-much. In this recital, unabashed virtuosity and the shades of Bach and Liszt tie the items together.
We begin with Liszt's arrangement of a Bach organ work. In general, I prefer Bach-Busoni to Bach-Liszt mainly because Busoni manages to suggest organ registrations better, but Busoni, of course, stood largely on Liszt's shoulders in this musical business. Besides its obvious aesthetic value, one can hear in Bach's prelude musical gestures that undoubtedly appealed to Liszt, since Liszt used them extensively in his own compositions: chromatically-descending bass lines, arpeggiated diminished-seventh chords, for example. Nissman successfully conveys the air of improvisation, that she's making all of it up right now. The fugue begins with a deceptively modest theme, which as it proceeds becomes mighty, tender, and mighty once again. Liszt definitely gives us Bach heard with Romantic ears and doesn't altogether escape the charge of textural thickness. Passages that would sound clear on the organ (given a sensitive player) can become muddy in Liszt's arrangement. Fortunately, Nissman can pick out any line she wants at any time. Her reading provides a model of clarity, and furthermore, it has both lyricism and power. The opening statement of the fugal subject, for example, seems to swell and ebb with human breath. She sings, indeed, throughout the fugue.
Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata towers over everything else here in its scope and ambition. I consider it the most virtuosic of the composer's piano sonatas, and indeed, it draws virtuosos. Conceptually, it poses hellish difficulties. Two different impulses war with each other throughout: Beethoven's flirtation with fragmentation and breakdown, characteristic of his final period, and increasing interest in academic counterpoint, mainly fugue, which encourages cohesive statements. The interval of the third provides most of the structural spine of the work. The composer builds most of his important themes out of thirds and even modulates by thirds, instead of by the usual fourths. Schnabel is usually my go-to Beethoven piano guy, but his recording (probably following Beethoven's metronome marks) not only rushes just about everything to the point of incoherence, it contains an even higher-than-usual number of splats and clams. How does a pianist go about shaping, essentially, chaos? Many pianists have heroically put themselves in this storm only to be driven back. Furthermore, this is one long sonata. It may have been the longest up to that point – three very substantial movements of four. A pianist must call upon reserves of mental and physical stamina. Clearly, Beethoven wanted to write a definitive work for the instrument. I'm not sure, but it strikes me that the pianist's fingers work the high and low extremes of the keyboard of that time. Beethoven creates startling, original textures and a complex piano "orchestration," separating thematic strands as much by register as by complex counterpoint. In many ways, the sonata seems to me ungraspable. You could spend a lifetime on it and still have plenty of ideas left over to think about as you wait for the last trumpet and all time to end.
As much as this score overwhelms me, I haven't heard anywhere nearly all the pianists I should: Serkin, Ashkenazy (dutiful and dull), Goode, Gould (bizarre, natch), Rosen, Schiff, Nat, and, of course, Schnabel. I feel I need to hear Gilels, Solomon, Uchida, Pollini, Binns, Kempf, Backhaus, and possibly Biret. I'd love to have heard Edwin Fischer, but I know of no recording. Of the ones I've heard, Schiff for me stands out as having come closest to giving back the work's measure.
The sonata begins with an epic fanfare – a characteristic, clipped rhythm that appears in other movements, and an upper line consisting of a rising third and an immediate falling third. A more relaxed answer – the rising third filled in – follows. Indeed, there are more rising and falling thirds in this exposition than you can wiggle your ears at, first and second subject groups. After, again, some astonishingly original piano writing, even for Beethoven, we come to a little fugato before we plunge back into the recap. Pianists have argued whether Beethoven really meant the metronome marks he put in. Indeed, I believe this is the first (maybe only) piano sonata for which he supplied metronome marks. I tend to believe he meant them. The problem is, the first movement is almost impossible to play in a coherent fashion at the speed Beethoven indicated (half note = 126, I believe). Consequently, some pianists have resorted to faulting Beethoven's metronome. I'd love to know its accuracy. I've heard others say that Beethoven, stone deaf, heard the music in his head rather than through physical contact with the sounding music and that people tend to hear music faster in their minds than in the wild. I know I myself do this, but I'm no professional musician. Consequently, many players take the first movement slightly slower, as does Nissman. My only concern comes down to whether the tempo convinces. I don't feel the composer always has the last word on the performance of his own music. Performers, especially great ones, can see in a score things the composer never knew were there. By me, this is a feature, not a bug. By slowing down just a hair, Nissman illuminates many fine points along the way. The first movement, which could sprawl, becomes a model of lucidity.
The short scherzo which follows turns out to be the main light moment in the sonata. Basically, the second movement movement shoves the first into a fun house. It becomes like a satyr-play to the heavy drama of the rest of the score. For the first theme, the fanfare of the opening movement gets smooshed to the point where all that's left is the martial rhythm and the thirds, rising and falling. But what the heck? Every section of this gem contains themes at least beginning with a rising third. There's an odd little trio, which features both a moody theme with double counterpoint and canon as well as a crazy csárdás. The ending teases, in a goofy way, with the tonal center. It flies off to harmonic Pluto and returns in the blink of an eye. Nissman gets both the fun and the structure. If I have one criticism, it's that I want a lower dynamic for the introduction of the moody bit.
Fun, of course, seldom lasts. The scherzo ends, and we plunge into tragic regret. Writers and performers have gone gaga over this movement – some considering it Beethoven's most profound adagio. To me, you might as well want to know the highest star. Practically, this means that performers, in the interest of Profundity, tend to slow this thing down to the point where you can leave the house, eat a nice dinner, and return without having missed much. To me, the movement must, above all, flow, no matter how leisurely you take it. It's a very long movement indeed. If you regard Beethoven's marking, it runs somewhere around fifteen minutes. I've heard at least one account clock in at nineteen or so. That was a long evening. Nissman's slow, but she's not mired in muck. The movement begins with a brilliant, yet simple touch – a rising minor third in the bass in octaves, answered by the first theme proper in the soprano, beginning with a falling third. Why that should have such an effect, I have no idea, but it grabs me every time. Throughout, Nissman plays – I can't think of another word – chastely, conveying nobility. You don't catch her Interpreting, which means you feel as if you've gone inside Beethoven's head, into the realm of pure idea. She seems willing to let the music speak for itself – resignation with a brief lightening and back to resignation again. As a listener, I consider this and the first movement the most difficult to bring off and indeed judge "Hammerklavier" performances mainly by these two. Although I prefer the lyrical flow of Schiff's Adagio (he also takes it faster), in overall effect and understanding I find little to separate him from Nissman.
One of my music professors described the last movement as a "king-hell fugue." I suppose "king-hell" was a Sixties version of "gnarly" and "awesome." The movement in broad outline is an introduction and fugue, although not a strict fugue. This one Beethoven stuffs full of traditional tricks, as well as a few he's thought of himself. To some extent, he redefines the fugue, particularly the way a fugue moves. Most fugues proceed more or less inexorably. Beethoven seems to take a scissors to the musical line, rough-splicing, starting and stopping and re-starting, veering off on apparent tangents which turn out quite pertinent. It reminds me of the musical equivalent of a Shakespeare play or a Dickens house. This tendency reaches its apex in the Missa solemnis.
For a fugue, the one here's pretty long. It begins with what sounds like reminiscences of Bach's Das wohltemperirte Clavier. Although better known for his admiration of Handel, Beethoven was very familiar with this work. In fact, the first written notice of Beethoven as a pianist mentions that he played from the WTC (he actually knew all of Book I). He even read the first Bach bio by Forkel. Furthermore, there are many Bach quotes in Beethoven's musical sketchbooks. At any rate, the intro sounds as if it rummages around for a fugal subject among Bachian scraps via chains of chords a third apart. It finally hits on a lulu, and it's pure Beethoven, besides. The subject begins with an upward leap of a tenth – in other words, an octave and a third. Beethoven rubs your nose in it, too, because he trills on the note that makes up the tenth. Most fugal subjects don't contain such wide skips. A fifth feels like a real stretch ordinarily. This fugue announces that it will jump like a guy who's had an ice cube dropped into his briefs, with yips and shakes.
When one thinks of master contrapuntalists, one doesn't normally consider Beethoven. Leonard Bernstein opined that Beethoven's fugues as fugues didn't rise much higher than student work, but he couldn't have been thinking about the late scores. If we look at something like Christus am Oelberge (1803) or the Mass in C (1807), Bernstein has a point. But the "Hammerklavier" comes from 1819, and Beethoven's interest in counterpoint as part of his moving away from simpler classical style comes into play. As I said, Beethoven doesn't merely write fugues, he fundamentally changes the nature of the fugue, subjecting it to some of the techniques he discovered in his sonatas and symphonies. First, the fugal subject is to some extent an illusion. It's really composed of smaller pieces. Beethoven will break up the theme into its constituents and "fuguify" the parts. He applies to the subject and its parts techniques like augmentation (the subject moving half as fast), retrograde (the subject, last note to first), and inversion (the subject upside-down). Beyond all this, however, is a feeling of immense power and freedom as well as a heightened sense of dramatic contrast. Bach and Mozart fugues often convey monumentality, but not extreme shifts of mood. The "Hammerklavier" fugue has an unpredictability, a seemingly endless capacity to surprise, represented well by the trill buzzing throughout the movement's course. The fugue has been Beethovenized. We could be listening to a super-contrapuntal "Waldstein." The fugal subject appears in all registers of the piano, particularly at the extremes of high and low, which (given that leap of a tenth) doesn't really surprise me. Again, Beethoven seems to push the technical resources of the contemporary piano to its limit. With the exception of the retrograde, which I've been able to hear only with the score in front of me (and then not always, no matter which pianist is playing), Nissman brings out all this teeming activity. The textures are gorgeously lucid. Even more important, she gives a highly dramatic, though not overdone, account. She balances fervor with classical restraint and intellectual penetration to the point where at times you think of Brahms. This is my second-favorite "Hammerklavier."
Nothing, really, can follow this work except encore pieces, but Nissman doesn't give us fluff, rather things like selections from Liszt's Transcendental Etudes. Liszt wrote them for his own use as the greatest piano virtuoso of his day and designed them to wow an audience. He completed and revised them in 1851. Some of these works in their earlier versions were considered nearly-unplayable. However, although virtuosity is a major component, it's not the end, as it can be in Liszt's rivals Thalberg, Hiller, and Gottschalk. With their programmatic titles – "harmonies of the evening," "will-o'-the-wisps," and "snowplow" – these three are as much character-pieces as etudes. "Harmonies du soir" differs from Chopin nocturnes in that the harmonic element outweighs the melodic. The melody often lies in the middle of the texture (played, I assume, with the thumbs). The harmonies are lush, even Wagnerian. The next composer to score with this general approach is Debussy. "Feux follets" is the most finger-active of the three – nervous, light, skittering. "Chasse-neige" depicts less the snowplow than the snow blown about by the wind. Toward the end, the wind picks up, and we find ourselves in the middle of a howling storm. Nissman gives you both the sparks and the scene.
Consolation #3 (of six) comes from the late 1840s. It sounds a lot like Chopin, and we should remember that Liszt worked on his biography of Chopin around this time, following the death of the Polish composer in 1849. Although Chopin disliked Liszt's musical "flash," Liszt regularly programmed Chopin's work in his own recitals. This morceau pays sincere tribute to the Polish composer. It lies very close to Chopin's nocturnes. Nissman herself sees a connection with Chopin's Nocturne in D-flat, Op. 27/2. It's as far from the lushness of, say, "Harmonies du soir," as an actual Chopin nocturne. Melody asserts its primacy. The music conveys inwardness and the sense of being alone with night surrounding you. Nissman is always wonderful in Chopin. She has mastered the singing line.
Virtuosity returns with a crash in Prokofieff's "Suggestion diabolique" from the composer's 4 Pieces (1908; rev. 1912). The shade of Liszt, particularly the Liszt of the "Mephisto Waltz #1" and the "Csárdás macabre," lingers in this driving toccata, similar to, say, the "Battle on the Ice" sequence from Alexander Nevsky. Nissman has recorded the complete 4 Pieces (Pierian 7/8/9), but this is a new recording. Honestly, I prefer the earlier account, beautifully shaded by elegantly-applied dynamics. This version uses a much broader brush, although no question it gets the job done – leaving the listener breathless.
While I'm at it, I might as well register a mild complaint about the recording itself. Occasionally, the sonic image disconcertingly shifts to the left for no apparent reason. Essentially, the presence of treble drops from the right speaker, only to build up again. It's as if somebody's accidentally knocked a mixing board slider. Nevertheless, Nissman has always been a pianist worth listening to and overall this is one amazing program. For the "Hammerklavier" alone, this CD comes out ahead. The rest is lagniappe.
Copyright © 2011, Steve Schwartz.