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Pierian 38

Volume 4

  • Johan Sebastian Bach: Concerto in the Italian Style
  • Maurice Ravel: Sonatine
  • Franz Liszt: Sonata in B minor
  • Alexander Scriabin:
  • Etude in C Sharp minor, Op. 2 #1
  • Etude in D Flat Major, Op. 8 #10
  • Etude in C Sharp minor, Op. 43 #5
  • Nocturne for the Left Hand alone, Op. 9 #2
  • Mili Balakirev: Islamey (Fantasie Orientale)
Barbara Nissman, piano
Pierian 38 73:36
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Cool fires.

As far as I'm concerned, Barbara Nissman's projected 10-CD set of recitals has begun to turn into a gripping saga. What will she play next? Up to now, she has included on each disc at least one piano monument, treated with intelligence and passion. This CD is no different.

I admit to some disappointment that she didn't program a Beethoven piano sonata (how about #31, as long as I'm wishing out loud?), since her earlier readings have not only utterly convinced me but blown me away. Nevertheless, I'll get over it, simply because she at the least always compels me to listen. Nissman, despite critics' labeling of her as a Modern specialist, in reality comes out of the grand tradition of Romantic virtuosi. Apparently, she can play anything, from the finger-busters of Rachmaninoff and Liszt and the night-poetry of Chopin, to the intellectual energy and drama of Bach and Beethoven. You can catch a hint of her considerable ability even in something so superficially simple as Debussy's "Claire de lune" (from volume 2), a work often swimming in treacle. Shaped by Nissman, the piece becomes elegant and heartbreakingly beautiful. On the basis of this alone, I'd consider her a major Debussy player, and I hope she does more.

Not that this program represents by any means an unrelieved decline into fluff and candy. Balakirev's Islamey may sparkle with flash and fun, but it's more of an after-dinner chocolate – something nice for the aural palate after a solid meal.

A piano-playing buddy of mine introduced me to Bach's Italian Concerto. I became an instant fan. Curiously, the recordings I've come across have done little for me. Rosalyn Tureck is her usual amazing, but to me she seems to forget that the work is a lot of fun as well as a masterpiece. I had high hopes for De Larrocha, but she surprised me with coarse playing. Big names like Gould, Brendel, Browning, Michelangeli, and Richter merely left me cold, but I stress that I haven't heard even a tenth of the 160-plus recordings out there. Nevertheless, I want magic.

I quibble with Nissman's tempo in the first movement – a little too fast for my taste. However, her uncanny ability to distinguish the three main strata of contrapuntal activity makes up for a lot. She will often emphasize a note with a slight hesitation. It can seem weird, but here it works and gives the line great plasticity.

Tovey thought the slow aria second movement one of the greatest in all of Bach. I don't really see a point in trying to discover which Bach movement is "deeper" than another. It's like trying to determine whether Sophocles or Shakespeare's the better dramatist, whether Wodehouse or Chaplin is funnier, or what's the "highest" star. On its own terms, Bach's second movement spins a long, beautiful line that catches you up and leads you inexorably on to the end – exactly what Nissman's performance does. As always, Nissman sings in her own way – warm without wallow, showing, despite the obvious Romantic spring of her inspiration, a beautiful classical restraint.

On the other hand, Nissman also takes risks. She tends to play "in the moment," although with a great deal of forethought. In the presto third movement, the risk simply doesn't pay off. Most of it is way too fast, as if her fingers stumble to keep up. She tends to lose the music in the tempo, and music becomes merely fast notes. During her occasional slowdowns, everything suddenly shifts back into balance. Also the micro-shifts in tempo – and I must say this is the only time I've reacted this way to her playing – strike me as compulsively strange, rather than convincing.

However, the world rights itself immediately with her account of Ravel's Sonatine. Despite the diminutive of the title, this work sings as hauntingly as Ravel could write. I hardly know where to begin – with its perfect, sensuous architecture, its imaginative and idiomatic writing for the piano, or its deep melodic and harmonic invention. Nissman's opening movement raptures me out and tells me something new about Ravel's music. I have always thought of him as a composer slightly at a distance, with a strong "objective" component to his artistic character. While retaining measure, Nissman shows the passion and the "lovely bones" beneath. She plays the second-movement minuet so beautifully, it stops your breath. It's like hearing the pipers under the hill. The final Animé uses ostinati extensively. Indeed, these figures generate much of the melodic material. Like all good toccatas, this one creates excitement through a lot of speedy notes, but unlike, say, Liszt, it's curiously chaste. There's a clockwork-toy air about it, and yet the final impression, especially with Nissman, is unadulterated joy. This may be the finest recording of the Sonatine I've heard, at least equaling my benchmark, Gieseking.

On the other hand, often Liszt's sonata has symbolized for me Everything Musically Wrong with the Nineteenth Century. I've heard a lot of big names build what strikes me as an ormolu penguin with a clock in its tummy. Really, only Martha Argerich had made me see past Liszt's theatrical storms and swoons to the genuine stature of the piece. Considered purely as composition, it's a remarkable score, particularly architecturally, and it has influenced many composers well into the Twentieth Century. The piece grows out of four ideas (Nissman says three), all stated at the beginning. From these, Liszt stretches and chops and slices and reassembles a pretty substantial musical half-hour. Nissman obviously believes in the work. She plays it like a classic. Her characteristically patrician approach keeps her from expressive excess, while she sharply delineates the structure. A work that often falls apart into sections here moves in long spans. She also provides the bonus of bringing clarity to Liszt's complex textures and made me realize how truly contrapuntal the work is, to the extent that each of the four basic ideas seldom appears alone, but in company with at least one other. I don't mean to imply that she makes it sound like a lecture or an anatomy dissection. There's plenty of excitement and genuine tenderness in her account. She also shares with Argerich a spontaneity. I can't predict how she will finish a phrase or what subtle adjustments in tempo and dynamics she will make to a line, but it nevertheless sounds not merely individual, but right.

After the hefty dose of Liszt, Nissman winds down the recital with essentially encore pieces, but what encore pieces!

When I think of Scriabin, I tend to forget about his early work, and his work indeed was early. He wrote his Op. 2/1 at 15, not even out of the conservatory, and it's remained one of his hits. The only suggestion that a youngster wrote it lies in hints of teen yearning in the main theme, but if you didn't know the circumstances of composition, this thought would not likely occur to you. Chopin exercises the dominant influence in the knowing, elegant piano writing and in the long arches of Scriabin's thematic shapes. The Db etude could also have come from Chopin, but didn't. Quick and scherzo-like, it balances flash with the grace of its ideas. Scriabin is one of the few who write Chopin as well as Chopin. However, for me, his later work (opus numbers from the mid-20s on, roughly a little longer than the last decade of his short life) overshadows his earlier. Here, you get things like the sonatas 4-10, the Op. 65 etudes, all the symphonies, and the Poem of Ecstasy – in short the stuff the critics like to write about. In the Op. 42, we hear Scriabin moving away from the classical restraint of Chopin toward a more Lisztian aesthetic and a greater harmonic instability. To me, it shares traits with Rachmaninoff's piano music of the time, although it's not self-consciously as "Russian." The left-hand Nocturne, another early work, came about through hard experience. Scriabin over-practiced (according to several stories, working on Balakirev's Islamey) and injured his right hand. So he wrote this, in part for his own use. If you needed convincing about Scriabin's very deep knowledge of what a pianist can do, this should suffice. Nissman plays it so well – with no "gaps" in the jumps from one register to another and with such smoothness of line – I caught myself thinking, "She's cheating. There's no way she can do that with one hand." Like St. Thomas, I want to see it for myself. Maybe I just want my jaw to drop. On the other hand, I'm no pianist, so I don't know what's possible. She must have a Lance Armstrong-class pedal technique. Since Nissman plays Chopin so beautifully, she turns each of these Scriabins into gems. She actually makes Scriabin sound as natural as breath, like Fred Astaire dancing.

Balakirev's Islamey at one time held legendary status among pianists as the single most difficult piece in the solo literature. I understand he wrote it to out-Liszt Liszt. Since then, other composers have striven to out-do Islamey, including Ravel in his Gaspard de la nuit. Okay, so it isn't Beethoven, but it is great daffy fun. Filled with the Orientalism of better-known pieces by Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov (although Balakirev most likely got there first), it's like going on a condensed tour of Prince Igor. Nissman brings out all its barbaric color and bittersweet languor – a refreshing sweet after the main meal.

All in all, another distinguished entry in Pierian's wonderfully intelligent and important catalogue.

Copyright © 2011, Steve Schwartz.

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