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Pierian 44

Volume 7

Barbara Nissman, piano
Pierian 44 72:48
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Stunning.

One of my more exciting rediscoveries has been the pianist Barbara Nissman. I had always admired her playing but, as it turns out, knew very little of it. I had no idea of her range. Her recent issues from the stalwart independent label Pierian have enlarged my view. Every one of the CDs so far has featured, frankly, monuments of the piano repertoire, including some superb Beethoven, and I contend makes a strong case for Nissman as one of greatest pianists of her time. Volume 7 in the projected 10-volume recital set features the Beethoven Diabelli Variations. This has become my favorite account. I've never heard it played with greater penetration. I suppose I should first talk about the "easier" pieces on the program, but I can ignore a reading of this caliber only with heroic efforts. It takes everything I have to postpone this discussion. As Mae West said, I generally avoid temptation unless I can't resist it.

When Bartók, Prokofieff, and Liszt become secondary, you know you're dealing with something special. The 2 Rumanian Dances come from roughly 1910, two years before Le sacre du printemps, and they reveal, even at this early date, Bartók the Beast. The composer had discovered roughly around this time that the simpler the melody, the more it could bear complex, even advanced, harmony. For me, both point toward works of the Twenties – the first toward the Piano Sonata of 1926, especially in the stamping basso opening, and both in the repetition of short motifs. Pianists tend to bang on these. Nissman, on the contrary, brings out their lyrical qualities without sacrificing much of their muscle.

Liszt's 12 Transcendental Etudes exist in two versions that I know of: the one Liszt composed for his own use, and the one he adapted for lesser pianists – everybody else. "La Ricordanza" (remembrance) is more reflective than some of the others in the set, but it's no pushover. There's a lot of flash and filigree, but that overlays melodic bedrock. The danger of Liszt is that the flash overpowers the music or becomes the point of the music. Sometimes, of course, Liszt wrote frankly to wow, but not here. There are moments of near-Chopin reflection. Nissman has the technique that allows you to forget technique. She lets you hear the music among all the notes.

The recital concludes with two favorite Prokofieff popovers: the Prelude, Op. 12, and the March from The Love for Three Oranges. Prokofieff originally wrote the Prelude for a woman harpist I believe he wanted to get to know better. It's a beautiful morceau, with an ecstatic melody, which floats ethereally through all the registers. He later made a version for the piano. Or maybe it was the other way around. I prefer it on the harp but don't sneer at the piano version. Nissman is, of course, a distinguished Prokofieffian, and gives a loving account of this work. For years, I knew the March only in Prokofieff's suite from the opera. I then heard the complete opera, which I thought wonderful. The existence of the piano version, written shortly after the opera, surprised me when I first heard Lazar Berman play it. Because I had heard the march only from an orchestra, I was unprepared for this. The orchestra colors seemed to soften the piece. The orchestral march was piquant, the piano piece grotesque – all those hammers. Also, the translation to piano requires a virtuoso. Prokofieff, a virtuoso pianist himself known as the "Russian Liszt," expects the performer to keep a lot of thick counterpoint clear and throws in a bit of couple of show-offy glissandi decorating the theme. Nissman commits fully to the mock pomp of the piece.

The Diabelli Variations have elicited encomia from some very fine musical minds. Analyst Donald Tovey called the Diabelli Variations the Greatest Variation Set Ever, apparently temporarily forgetting Bach. Schoenberg thought it Beethoven's most adventurous work. Some have called the score the greatest keyboard work ever, again forgetting Bach. I hate superlatives. Why should the Diabellis have to compete against the Missa Solemnis or the Sonata, Op. 110, and vice versa, for example? It's a bit like wondering whether Ali's right cross is more powerful than his left jab. Let's agree just to call the Diabellis amazing.

The work originated with the composer and publisher Anton Diabelli, who in 1819 got the idea for a quick volume of variations on one of his miniatures as a charity project in aid of war veterans. He invited about fifty composers – including Beethoven, Schubert, Czerny, Hummel, and Liszt (then 11 years old!) – to contribute one variation each. Beethoven, probably from wounded pride at the thought of being included among a crowd of lesser lights, withdrew from the project immediately and announced to the publisher that he would create his own variation set, which he insisted would be issued separately. Diabelli, no fool, immediately saw the commercial possibilities of the project and agreed. However, it took Beethoven four years to complete, despite Diabelli's increasingly frantic nagging.

Despite so many genius strokes as you can count in the individual variations, the structure of the entire variation set stands out. Unfortunately, few analysts agree on exactly what this structure is. For this review, I checked both Maynard Solomon and William Kinderman's commentaries. They don't line up. Solomon sees the large pieces as 1-7, 8-13, 14, 15-19, 20, 21-33, with two variations providing points of rest. On the other hand, Kinderman proposes 1-14, 15-24, and 25-33. You can see what a mess this is. However, in general, one senses a rapprochement between variation set and the late Beethoven sonata. However, the design doesn't seem as minutely worked out as that of Bach's Goldberg Variations, despite the sophistication of the critical arguments (especially Kinderman's). In the Goldbergs, you know in general what form every third variation will take. Bach imposes a structure from without. You can't really do that with the Diabellis. Given the circumstances of composition, it would have been unlikely, since Beethoven kept inserting variations throughout the set, rather than appending variations over the four years of composition.

Of what do the variations consist? Diabelli himself wrote a cheesy, even simple-minded waltz. To view it charitably, I'd say that he wanted something that didn't hem his composers in. Astonishingly, Beethoven doesn't even use all of it. He chops it up for scraps. Within five measures of the theme, he has every single element he needs for almost an hour's worth of music. Because the Diabellis are so huge and because one could spend many paragraphs on just one of them, this won't be an exhaustive examination. I'll try to hit some of the larger features with side-trips to smaller points of interest.

First off, almost all the variations are in C, either major or minor. So Beethoven forgoes – in a set of variations – the most common method for achieving musical variety, key change. Only in the penultimate variation (after some preparation in variation 31) does Beethoven move to E-flat and then modulates back to C for the final variation. Second, the slow sections are few. The variations tend to run from moderato to vivace and presto. For me, the slow movements assume a great importance for their rarity and mark structural divisions – that is, the beginning of a new large multi-variation chunk – a prelude-and-chunk kind of thing. I make no claims for this as The Ur-Structure. I simply hear it this way, and the view chimes with my view of the tendency in late Beethoven to abrupt surprise or the "bold stroke." Third, considering the typical view of Beethoven as a "rough-and-ready" composer, one finds a surprising amount of fairly sophisticated counterpoint in variation after variation, not simply in the two designated fugues, but almost "casual" canonic writing. Beethoven in his late period gets hipped on "learned" counterpoint. This is one of the reasons people compare the Diabellis to the Goldbergs. There are others, which I will try to point out.

We begin with a theme so unremarkable, anybody could have written it. It's predictable waltz, rhythmically foursquare, even banal: beginning with a turn, a C-major chord hammers repeatedly in the middle register over a largely triadic bass, with a repeating 4th (think the first two notes of "Here Comes the Bride") in a triadic melody. It goes to the most common harmonic place; in this case, the middle pounds out G major, while the melody emphasizes a 5th (think "Twinkle, twinkle"). Then comes the most interesting bit – a repeated rising sequence of three notes, which Beethoven scorned as "a cobbler's patch." None of it seems all that promising, but that's all Beethoven thinks relevant. Every one of the variations will grow from at least one of these atoms.

Given the dumpiness of the theme, the very first variation comes as a shock. First, it's a march – "Alla Marcia maestosa." The dippiness of the theme makes ridiculous the "majesty" of the march. We immediately arrive in the realm of parody. Beethoven deliberately and abruptly breaks the major rhythmic association with Diabelli. Second, the harmonies are infinitely more sophisticated and the part writing more capable. Beethoven suddenly lifts us to a much higher musical altitude. I hear Beethoven saying to Diabelli, right from the start, "You could have done this, if you'd only had the talent." Even so, it's not a complete break, because of those structural atoms. The march is built on every single one of the pieces: the "hammer," the 4th and 5th, the turn, the triad, and the sequence.

The second variation, based largely on the hammer, is surprisingly delicate, as is the third, based on the turn and the sequence. With the fourth, we get the first of what I call the "canonic" variations: variations usually not strict canons, but which contain substantial canonic writing. These include the sixth, eleventh, fourteenth, nineteenth, twentieth, and thirtieth.

The variations also nurture the seeds of later composers, especially Schumann and Brahms, in their inwardness and their caprice. Many of the variations contain what must have struck Beethoven's contemporaries as incomprehensible harmonies and rhythmic and tempo chaos. Liszt, for example, called the twentieth "the Sphinx," due to its odd harmonic world. Striking new and inventive piano textures appear throughout, sometimes merely bare octaves, as in the ninth, eighteenth, twenty-second, and twenty-eighth. The variations also look back, as I said before, to Mozart, Handel, and Bach. The ninth seems to update the gavotte, for example.

Throughout, we get an almost bewildering and teeming variety of mood and character. For a much-admired masterpiece, there are plenty of jokes, some of them rather sharp. In the thirteenth, a variation on the "hammer," we get comic exaggeration of extreme louds followed by long pauses and extreme softs – to me another slap at the "emptiness" of Diabelli's theme. Beethoven follows this up with another canonic variation (where the parts switch in the second half), slow and very deeply felt. Beethoven, I believe, through this kind of juxtaposition suggests "multiverses" of feeling. The twenty-second and -third variations seem to recommend themselves to commentators. The second, according to Brendel, parodies a Cramer finger exercise. The first paraphrases Mozart's Don Giovanni – Leporello's aria "Notte e giorno faticar" ("Day and night I sweat"), supposedly Beethoven's response to a prod from Diabelli to finish.

As eye-opening as the variations have been, after about the twenty-first, Beethoven kicks into a higher gear. Beethoven was one of those responsible for throwing the weight of a composition to the later movements. If you think about Vivaldi, Haydn, or even Mozart, the finale tends to release tension. Beethoven, on the contrary, ratchets things up. The twenty-fourth, a slowish fughetta based on the descending fourth and fifth intervals, evokes the Baroque. The second half loosely inverts the linear motion of the first. Variations 29, 30, and 31 are three slows in a row, and Beethoven uses them to deepen the music. They play mainly with the turn, the sequence, and the falling intervals. The thirtieth is beautifully canonic. The thirty-first brings out critical superlatives – a Baroque lament, highly decorated, which mines for tragedy. Some commentators have seen allusions to Bach's Goldbergs. If so, they've flown over my head, but I don't know the Goldbergs at the detailed level of a performer.

The penultimate variation is a fast triple fugue. Furthermore, it uses the most contrapuntally recalcitrant component of Diabelli's theme for one of its subjects: the hammer of repeated notes. The fourths and fifths come into play, just as they do in the finale of Beethoven's Op. 110, and like that masterpiece, they essentially redefine the fugue as a dramatic structure, very much in line with Beethoven's late music. The fugue acts as a climax to the set. A key change from C tonality (in this case, c-minor) to E-flat emphasizes this, yanking the composition into a "brighter," more splendiferous key. Rimsky-Korsakov, after all, called E-flat "the key of great cities." I was about to write "the counterpoint is amazing," which it is, but it's the music that Beethoven comes up with that gets the blood moving. Within such a strict form, Beethoven flirts with chaos – which we also see in the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth. It's like watching a speeding roller coaster that, especially toward the end, wants to come off the rails. The momentum abruptly halts on a diminished chord, and we move to perhaps the boldest stroke yet: a free-floating, enigmatic transition back to the key of C and what begins as a lovely minuet. Toward the end, Beethoven begins to inject a bit of brilliance and sets us up for one final flash. Instead, the music softens. Immediately after what could be the final tender adieu, Beethoven throws in one last jolt, as if to say, "I've got nothing to be modest about."

Nissman gives me one of my favorite accounts of the Diabellis, and she takes an unusual approach, thoroughly justified by the score. Unlike some (Brendel, for example), she doesn't concern herself overmuch with the big picture, trusting the music to make its own case. Instead, she concentrates on the contrasts between a variation and its successor, except in the cases of obvious groups (variations 29-31, for example). It's almost sci-fi: you open one door and find yourself in a completely different country. I have only one complaint, variation 26, marked "piacevole" (peaceful). She comes across as a bit hard. On the other hand, it becomes more like the final gigue in Bach's English Suite #4, where motion and contrary motion in conflict tend to make your ears cross. Other than that, she certainly lets you know you're listening to a masterpiece. She takes you on an intellectual and (I hate the word) "spiritual" trip through a great composer's mind.

On top of all this, her engineers, Bill Purse and David Barr, have done a superb job of creating (or reproducing) a creamy, "natural" piano acoustic. This has to be one of my records of the year.

Copyright © 2012, Steve Schwartz.

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