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Volume 1

Barbara Nissman, piano
Pierian 35 73:59
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Summary for the Busy Executive: The grand played in the grand tradition.

I must admit that, while I admire many contemporary pianists, very few actually excite me. I can think only of Uchida, Pollini, Argerich, Schiff, Hamelin, and, now and then, Hewitt. The young Fleisher and Cliburn also got my blood going, but Cliburn's repertory shrank down next-to-nothing and Fleisher's a shadow of his former mighty self. When I think of pianists, I think of (not in order of preference) people like Curzon, Richter, Gould, Gieseking, Kapell, Tureck, Schnabel, Rudolf Serkin, Horowitz – in short, an older generation which may have had its flaws, but which nevertheless thrilled me. For me, Barbara Nissman works at their wattage.

Nissman hasn't a name with the currency of, say, Lang Lang or, more seriously, Hamelin. All of her discs are solo albums, all currently on Pierian. No major label has backed a concerto performance, for example – something that, once you hear her, you find it hard to credit. This is a full-blooded player, perfect for the repertory from Beethoven on. However, she also has a sharp and questing musical intelligence. Early on, she got stuck with the "modern-music specialist" label (the kiss of career death) due to her magisterial readings of Ginastera (my intro to her playing) and Prokofiev. However, she has studied all the repertoire fairly deeply. She's outstanding in Beethoven and the Romantics as well. Pierian has recorded so far six discs in a projected ten-disc series which contain warhorses of the solo repertoire, plus a few surprises. The term "warhorse" may have come in for denigration in certain circles, but if you ride to war, you want a horse that's strong, smart, spirited, and dependable. Furthermore, Nissman never gives you a reading like everyone else's. Not only is she an individual, but she doesn't keep "her" interpretation static. I've also never caught her in self-indulgence or bizarrerie. She combines passion and intelligence.

Beethoven's "Pathétique" sonata was the second one I ever heard (the first, of course, the "Moonlight", although probably just the first movement). I've never heard a bad account, even from student players. To some extent, once you can hit the notes, the piece apparently plays itself. My preferred reading remains Schnabel's, although Nissman competes pretty successfully with my memory of a live performance by Serkin, another favorite. The sonata hovers between the Classical and Romantic eras. The first two movements initiate a major break with the past. The structure of the first movement is really unlike any previous sonata movement. A solemn introduction interrupts a driving allegro three times, often marking major structural divisions. The second movement sings in a way I doubt Mozart or Haydn would have recognized. However, the rondo finale reverts to classicism. I wouldn't have been too surprised had you told me Mozart had written it.

At the most general level, the three movements are energy, song, and energy. Nissman's account doesn't have the weight of some, but it has plenty of energy. Her first movement emphasizes the violence of Beethoven's contrasts, his radical rethinking of the piano. In her liner notes, Nissman remarks that Beethoven doesn't write for the piano so much as despite the piano. In the opening grave, the lyrical strain, beautifully sung, is interrupted by powerful crashes, only to return quickly to the lyrical again. Yet Nissman never returns to exactly the same place. The lyrical bit, minus the crashes, steadily crescendos. When the allegro finally rushes in, we get three separate planes of activity, each with its own color and dynamic. At first, I thought that she was trying to turn the piano into an orchestra, but quickly gave up that thought. Instead, she gives you the feeling – ironically, through superb pianism – that the music is meant for an instrument that hasn't yet been invented. Two little bits of extra pleasure: in the really quick runs, each note is as distinct and as clear as a jewel, with no smears and with the line intact; in the really quick "shakes" in thirds at the upper end, the same clarity, much more difficult than the former because there are fewer fingering options and it sounds like it's all done with the relatively weaker fingers 3 through 5. Wow!

I've heard the second movement pulled and kneaded so thoughtlessly for "depth," it actually became less expressive. It's such a – well – noble utterance, however, a pianist must do a lot to kill it entirely. I've always felt that Elgar had in mind this adagio and the one in the Ninth Symphony for "Nimrod" in the Enigma Variations. Nissman gives the movement, in effect, a steam cleaning, to wash off the treacle and taffy. Beethoven marks the movement "Adagio cantabile," and in the opening, Nissman emphasizes the "cantabile," singing simply and beautifully. It sounds like she's just playing, but it takes a big nature like Nissman's to achieve such simplicity without sounding like phoning it in. The middle section builds up a bit of excitement, like a pot coming to a simmer, while the end carries over the simmering into the return of the song. A lot of pianists try to turn this last section into "trouble coming," and the last movement provides the payoff. With Nissman, it's like happiness welling up inside you. This does carry into the last movement, less Sturm und Drang-y than some interpretations. For me, Nissman emphasizes the links to the Classical era. A work like the first movement of Mozart's g-minor quintet comes to mind or even the "Turkish" Rondo. Again, the clarity of each note within the line of a run impresses especially as does Nissman's superb control of dynamics and variety of touch, from cantabile to needle-like to weighty. Let's face it, this sonata is so well-known that – outside of a fun-house-mirror distortion – it holds few surprises. Yet Nissman gets me, at any rate, to think of it in a new way.

I always felt Prokofiev's Visions fugitives attempts to capture transitory states in a manner distinct from Impressionism. In her set of Prokofiev sonatas (Pierian 07), Nissman's performance seemed to me too positive. However, Prokofiev wrote these wondrous miniatures in response to the exhilaration he felt at the Russian Revolution in 1917, so I'm likely way off base and Nissman right on target. We don't get the complete set here, but four excerpts. This time around, however, Nissman captures the half-lights inherent in the music, as well as, in #9, a bit of giddiness.

1917 was also a big year musically for Prokofiev. In addition to the Visions, he wrote They are Seven, the first sketches for the Third Piano Concerto, and the Third and Fourth Piano Sonatas, both of which revise student works. The Third Sonata for me is the first score in which Prokofiev speaks with his characteristic voice. In one movement, a "tempestuous" toccata leads to a meltingly lyrical bit. This gives way to a scherzo-march variant of the opening and an "interpenetration" of the toccata and lyrical ideas. Non-Russian pianists tend to treat Prokofiev as an afterthought, a pendant to the real business of the 20th century. Nissman plays the music as if it were as basic to the repertoire as Debussy or Bartók. She convinces me, at any rate.

Unless played by a really great pianist, I've never cared for Schubert's "Wanderer" Fantasy and instead preferred Liszt's arrangement for piano and orchestra. I'd fall temporarily under the spell of, say, Pollini, but I didn't stick there. The piece seemed to me banal and clunky on the piano. I found Schubert's great piano writing in his song accompaniments. I liked about Liszt's arrangement that it clearly delineated the architecture of the piece through orchestral color. Nissman shows me how unfair I was to the original. What seemed klutzy turned into startlingly inventive. Where Schubert had seemed to keep hammering the same idea over and over now became emotionally crowded each time it appeared. Nissman applies a huge range of color, always suitable to the thought, and always in the service of structural clarity. True to the spirit of a fantasy, she even sounds as if she's making it up as she goes along. When the "Wanderer" theme first appears, she makes it sound as deep as a Beethoven adagio. Musical revelations occur frequently throughout this account (which instantly became my favorite), but the overall impression is (and I sincerely hate to use this phrase) spiritual communion – with what, I have no idea.

Several pianists have arranged "Isolde's Liebestod" from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Liszt's version is probably the most played. To some extent, it comes out of Liszt's mission to disseminate the classics of then-contemporary music before the age of recording. At certain points, Liszt tries to emulate the orchestra in his piano, and precisely then does he fail. I think particularly of his overuse of tremolo, probably an instant cliché when he thought it up. He does far better when he uses the occasion just to write a great piano piece. In a way, it resembles a translator who translates word-for-word vs. one who asks, "How would I say this in English?" For me, the test comes down to whether I would actively listen to it for its own sake. Stravinsky's piano masterwork Trois mouvements de Pétrouchka doesn't replace the ballet, but I want to listen to it in its own right. I can't say the same for Liszt's transcription from Tristan. Nissman does okay, but she doesn't convince me that this piece hasn't outlived its usefulness.

However, Liszt achieves real interest in his Mephisto Waltz #1. The inspiration for the piece comes from Lenau's Faust, rather than from Goethe's, and describes a scene in a village inn where Mephistopheles, disguised as a hunter, strikes up a tune on the violin and presides over an orgiastic dance. Our standards for orgies have risen (or fallen, depending on your point of view) since Lenau and Liszt's day, but the piece remains chock-full of radical harmonies and musical ideas. There's a program of sorts, but you needn't know it to enjoy the piece. The work opens with a remarkable passage of consecutive fifths – Mephisto warming up on the violin's open strings – and you realize immediately that somehow the instrument has grown an extra set of strings. Liszt calls what follows a waltz. However, the pulse runs as fast as a tarantella. As a contrast, we have the passion of Faust falling for Marguerite. The dance becomes ever more heated, threatening to fly off the rails. Aside from the finger-skill, the piece poses the difficulty of overall shape. How do you get to the end without peaking too soon (yes, it's that kind of score)? Of course, Nissman has judged things so well that she avoids the trap. In her account, Mephisto's waltz creates the illusion that it gets wilder and faster up to the last bar.

The recital closes with the Chopin Nocturne in D-flat – perhaps the essence of the Chopin nocturne. After the bowl of steamy-hot chili that is the Liszt, it arrives as an after-dinner mint. Silvery and elegant, Nissman's account features a line that seems to breathe. She makes me hear rubato in a new way. All the hesitations and momentary rushes in the line are less expressive than downright animating, life-giving to black notes on a white page, played by "a box of hammers." I've never heard Chopin playing better than this and only rarely as good. I've always said that Chopin's music leaves room for several interpretations and that there is no one Chopin. Nissman almost makes me change my mind. I urgently recommend her all-Chopin disc on Pierian 19.

In addition to the considerable attractions of Nissman's playing, I should also mentioned that all this music has received superlative recording. Nissman's Steinway D sounds deep, bright, and, when called for, flexible. Her collaborators, producer and recording engineer, Bill Purse, and her piano techie, David Barr, get prominent mention, as they should.

Copyright © 2011, Steve Schwartz.