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CD Review

Frédéric Chopin

Piano Music

  • Polonaise-Fantasy, Op. 61
  • Etude "Harp" in A Flat Major, Op. 25/1
  • Etude in E Major, Op. 10/3
  • Etude "Revolutionary" in C minor, Op. 10/12
  • Fantasy in F minor, Op. 49
  • Nocturne in E Flat Major, Op. 9/2
  • Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48/1
  • Nocturne in D Flat Major, Op. 27/2
  • Scherzo #3 in C Sharp minor, Op. 39
  • Fantasy-Impromptu, Op. 66
  • Polonaise in A Flat Major, Op. 53
  • Waltz in A Flat Major, Op. 34/1
Barbara Nissman, piano
Pierian 19 74:58
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Chopin as classicist.

Truth to tell, I can pretty much take Chopin or leave him alone. I don't swoon over his dreamscapes. His furies seldom get my blood racing. Chopin has, of course, rooted himself in the repertory of every advanced piano student in the known world. I often get the feeling that before conservatories hand you a degree, you need to play them some Chopin so they'll take you seriously. So just about pianist who's recorded has committed his or her Chopin to disc. I've heard some pretty clueless Chopin – the category into which I assign most of the pianists I've heard. It takes an extraordinary player to stop my mind from wandering.

On the other hand, Chopin gives a pianist a lot of room to come up with an individual interpretation. Indeed, I don't believe in a "best Chopin player," but I have heard some fine ones, who tend to follow one of two broad approaches: the Dionysian and the Apollonian. The first can give you something strongly individual (Garrick Ohlsson, for example), with the down side that you can get bizarre readings that focus attention on the player, rather than on music. The latter aims to give you the illusion of naturalness. Rubinstein probably typifies this point of view. However, you often get nothing special. Natural degenerates into bland.

I've always thought of Nissman as Modern specialist, mainly because of her outstanding Bartók, Prokofieff, and Ginastera. Her Pierian recordings, however, have shown me her breadth of repertoire. She doesn't play with a one-size-fits-all mentality. Her Beethoven differs from her Chopin which differs from her Prokofieff.

As a Chopin player, Nissman knows her own mind. She imitates nobody, although if I had to classify her, I'd put her closer to Rubinstein than to Argerich, in that she wants to let Chopin's music "speak for itself." An enormous amount of art goes into creating that illusion. Apparently, Chopin's music speaks for itself in many different accents. Chopin's tendency to decorate his main argument with sidelights poses pianists their main difficulty. You've got to know the main road, or you lose both yourself and the listener. The Polonaise-Fantasy is a case in point. It's mainly a fantasy with here and there interjections of polonaise rhythm. Framed with a substantial introduction and coda, the piece riffs on four main ideas. A late work, it runs a good twelve or thirteen minutes, and it strikes me as one of the best, most coherent pieces of Chopin's maturity. Nissman's virtues come to notice almost immediately. One remarks on her superb dynamic control to shape the arc of the introduction (fairly substantial, about two-and-a-half minutes long). The increase in volume is noticeable but very nicely judged. She handles climaxes in general superbly. She always knows the arrival point of the music, where all the tension breaks – a big deal, since Chopin often tempts the player with a false climax, before the real one comes along. In short, Nissman always has power in reserve. You feel she can get louder without banging (not always Rubinstein's strong suit, incidentally).

The Etudes, opp. 10 and 25, may constitute my favorite Chopin, aside from certain fugitive pieces. They have the distinction of being both real studies of piano technique and real music. Nissman gives a nice sample: from the pop hit "Revolutionary" to the salon morceau "Harp" to the noble E-major. Actually, I like piano-pounding in the "Revolutionary." I'm that shallow. Here Nissman strikes me as too tasteful, unfortunately. However, the "Harp" is a joy. Nissman's rubato – her pressures and hesitancies in rhythm – vivify the musical line without distorting it. One gets the impression that the piano breathes. The little tail in the bass that Chopin appends to the work for once seems not an afterthought, but seamless with the rest. The E-major etude under Nissman's fingers has much of Schumann's inwardness. She minimizes Chopin's frills to create a line of steel. Indeed, one takes a very short step from here to Brahms.

The f-minor Fantasy, another extended work, baffles many pianists. Arrau's recording, for example, aims for grandeur, but very little else. Nissman travels a wide emotional territory. It's an elegant reading, but it packs a punch, particularly at the quick-march section, about five minutes in. Nissman manages to switch emotional gears without grinding them. She gives us a feeling for the whole, as true of her generally as of this specific piece.

Nissman also gives us a smart selection from the nocturnes that shows the composer's range. The first nocturne is really a waltz, the second a slow march, similar to the funeral march in the piano sonata, and the third what we normally think of as a nocturne, a night song. I confess I like the Op. 27 nocturne best, and Nissman gives an eloquent, noble reading.

I think of Chopin's scherzi as his "wild man" music – full of fantastic ideas and sharp contrasts. Argerich's playing approaches my ideal. Nissman disappointed me a bit, because she takes a balanced, "classical" view. The playing is fine, but to me she misses the point.

On the other hand, I can't imagine her performance of the Fantasy-Impromptu bettered. There's enough Sturm und Drang in the first idea as well as delicacy in the lyrical bit ("I'm Always Chasing Rainbows"). Yet the two moods don't fight one another. They hang together beautifully, like sunlight piercing the clouds.

The A-flat Polonaise in many ways seems to me the most individual interpretation on the disc, and she arrives at it simply by scrubbing its face. She takes the piece back to its dance roots, rather than pumps in the steroids for a Big Statement. The latter has been the norm of most well-known virtuosi for decades, especially in the wake of Polish nationalism. However, Nissman makes me wonder how Chopin played it.

I don't presume to speak for dedicated fans of Chopin, who may well miss the usual cheap thrills pianists often go for. However, for a view of Chopin the classicist, the man who studied Bach, Nissman's quite persuasive.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz