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Pierian 46

Volume 8

Barbara Nissman, piano
Pierian 46 78:03
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Terrific performances over a very wide range of music.

Barbara Nissman and her label Pierian project ten volumes in this recital series, and this is volume 8. I can see the series end and will grieve when it arrives. On each disc, Nissman has offered touchstones of the piano repertoire in penetrating, passionate, and extremely personal interpretations. Certainly, Nissman hasn't lowered any of her standards here.

Known for her Prokofieff (I believe she was the first to program all of the sonatas), Nissman opens with that composer's Op. 1. It surprises you a bit, but only because it doesn't sound like the Prokofieff you know. A big, bopping, lush bit of late Romanticism, it reminds me a little of Scriabin's early sonatas, but not as exploratory. In many ways, I think of it as a tribute to Russian pianism. It shows Prokofieff's melodic gifts and his complete understanding of the instrument. Nissman has recorded all of Prokofieff's sonatas on Pierian 7/8/9, which also includes both versions of Sonata #5, the fragment of Sonata #10, and various other pieces, including Sarcasms and Visions fugitives.

As far as I'm concerned, the piano sonata declined precipitously after the death of Schubert and didn't really recover until Scriabin. Until now, for me, Schumann's best piano works definitely did not include either of his sonatas. I prefer Schumann's Kinderscenen, C-major Fantasie, Variations on a Theme of Clara Wieck. That said, Nissman makes the Piano Sonata in f# a much better piece than I realized. Indeed, she makes me see it as something quite remarkable, and I've heard it from Arrau, Pollini, Wild, and Ashkenazy. Where I used to see a rather clunky attempt to cobble together a sonata, I now see something architecturally experimental and personal.

The sonata comes from the period of Schumann's cockamamie courtship of Clara Wieck, during which the couple, forcibly separated by Clara's father, passed cryptograms to one another. The first movement began as a Fandango. Clara took some of the Fandango to write a work of her own, and Schumann appropriated a rhythm from her work (Scène fantastique) for this movement. The sonata begins with an extended intro, then moves to the agitated main theme. Schumann develops this for quite a while before he gets to the exposition of a lyrical second theme. The development is weird because it focuses exclusively on the first theme and because it seems to come too late. This shortens the recap, but before we get there, Schumann throws in a terse reference to the introduction. The movement comes across as ending too soon and too ambiguously. I feel strongly that Schumann passes hidden messages in the oddities of the form – a combination of sonata and diary.

Beethoven, especially in his late period, put much of the emotional oomph of his sonatas into his slow movements, which influenced the Romantic school that followed. Schumann's slow movement goes against type. For one thing, it's very short, in reality a Lied ohne Wörter – A-B-A. One can easily imagine words put to it. The melody is very beautiful, but Schumann spends no effort to extend it, as Beethoven does with the very songful slow movement of his Pathétique Sonata. Schumann's song never becomes a movement that counters the weight of the others. It simply ends too soon. Again, I suspect this a love note to Clara, as opposed to a meditation on Love. As such, it shows a radical rethinking of sonata.

In the third-movement scherzo, Schumann conducts one of his rhythmic experiments (think of the opening to the "Rhenish" Symphony, for example – is it in 2? in 3?). In the scherzo, we ask the musical question, "Where's the downbeat?" Schumann does not limit his experimentation to rhythm, but, as we have seen, extends it to form. Not only has this scherzo two trios, rather than the usual one, but the second trio has a pulse that differs from anything we've previously heard. Furthermore, before the final appearance of the main theme, the movement pretty much falls apart into recitative. The flirtation with formlessness Schumann probably picked up from late Beethoven, but here it feels different. Indeed, it lacks the satisfying feeling of inexorability of the Classical, or even the Beethoven, scherzo forms. With Beethoven or Brahms, you may encounter surprising scenery outside the car window, but you don't really doubt the reliability of the engine. With this sonata, you dig your nails into your palms and wonder what swamp you might end up in the middle of and how far to the nearest gas station.

In her very informative liner notes, Nissman describes the finale aptly as a "kitchen-sink movement." There's way too much material, developed capriciously, although one can make an analogy to rondo. Yet, it works, mainly because the level of thematic invention is so high and the music is, in Tovey's phrase, "like the best of Schumann, recklessly pretty."

I realize that I seem to praise Schumann faintly, and I don't at all mean to. Rhetorical remnants of my former dismissal may still linger. However, Nissman has indeed made me see the sonata in a new way, as something in which Schumann has taken very large risks and mostly pulled them off. The musical features remain what they were. The mind's shaping of them into a landscape has changed. I have trouble articulating the difference between Nissman and other pianists. Surely other fine players note the same oddities she does. Perhaps others don't commit to them as deeply. Her vision of the sonata is crisper and makes sense of the whole. She seems willing to go over the cliff, hand in hand with the composer.

Chopin wrote his four Ballades with actual poetic ballads in mind. According to Schumann, Ballade #4 took its inspiration from a poem by Adam Mickiewicz about three brothers who wander the world and return with three Polish brides. I should note that I can get along very well without listening to Chopin. A great player can temporarily capture me, but I don't find myself returning to much of this music. The fourth Ballade is one of those pieces that just wash over me. Ten minutes later, I've forgotten it. Obviously, I'm not the best source for information or critical judgment on the work itself. I can, however, comment on Nissman's playing. Her singing line stands out. She seems to plant in my mind's ear a human singer tackling Chopin's vocally impossible lines. Her stretching and pushing of tempo avoids emotional excess. In fact, she's one of the most elegant Chopin players around, and furthermore her elegance enhances rather than blocks emotion. She also has plenty of power, particularly in the passionate final bars.

I argue that there's more excellence and more variety of music in the Modern and Contemporary eras than we seem to know what to do with from so many wonderful composers very few people have heard of. American Benjamin Lees falls into this category, although he always attracted A-list champions, like Szell, Grafman, Szeryng, and Leinsdorf. His music, characterized by a commanding logic, strong drama, and deeply-shadowed feeling, grabs a listener, often immediately, but also allows that listener to discover new things from repeated listenings. Dying in 2010, he wrote up until a few months before. He composed his final work, Visage, for Barbara Nissman. She brilliantly points out its high-level resemblance to the Rachmaninoff c#-minor prelude, where tolling alternates with skittering passagework. The performance shows the granite and grit of the music. Her superb pedal-work in the last measures must be heard to be believed. She has also recorded Lees's Odyssey #1 (Pierian 41). I hope she adds more Lees to her repertoire, especially the piano sonatas.

As a bit of relaxation, we get Isaac Albéniz's Navarra, a full-throated declaration of love for Spain. Deceptively simple, in that it calls for singing and dancing, the piece nevertheless demands virtuoso fingers, with double turns in the right hand and heavens knows what else. The notes threaten to overwhelm the music, but not with Nissman. That fabulous singing line again – simultaneously heartfelt and slightly sentimental, with just a bit of melancholy – alternates with the crisp snap of castanets.

Many recognize Nissman as an authority on the Argentinean composer Albert Ginastera. She knew Ginastera, who wrote his third piano sonata for her. She brought to light the masterpiece Popul Vuh (Naxos 8.570999) (incomplete at the composer's death), edited the second piano concerto according to the composer's original intentions (the first soloist substantially rewrote the earlier score), and discovered a beautiful third concerto from early in the composer's career, which he had withdrawn. She also recorded his complete solo piano works (Pierian 41). Obviously, this duplicates repertoire on the earlier disc, but as nearly as I can tell, Nissman doesn't record anything the same way twice. She's less interested in a "definitive" interpretation than in surrendering to the opportunities of the moment (after a tremendous amount of preparation, of course).

Putting aside their mutual positions as touchstones of the piano literature, I hear in Ginastera's Sonata #1 (primarily in the outer movements) many resemblances to Bartók's 1926 Sonata, but with Latin themes and rhythms. Ginastera writes four movements: "Allegro marcato," "Presto misterioso," "Adagio molto passionato," "Ruvido ed ostinato" (harsh and stubborn). Every movement is concise. Every note packs a punch. Ginastera didn't write much, I suspect precisely for these reasons. He seemed to have a horror of simply marking time. Even his points of relaxation vibrate. The first movement divides one idea into two halves and turns them into first and second subjects. You can imagine dancers flinging themselves about to this music. Ginastera mainly beats the drum, but – unlike Bartók in the first movement of his sonata – not relentlessly. One finds joy as well as power in this Ginastera. The second movement, a scherzo, bubbles like a thick stew. In the slow third, we get something like a nocturne, where someone plucks the open strings of the guitar, searching for a song. The piano evokes the guitar, but I doubt whether you could transcribe this successfully for the instrument itself. The headlong finale, a malambo (an Argentinean dance, and one of Ginastera's favorite forms), features the stamps of dancers, racketing between two groups of three and three groups of two.

Nissman's re-recordings run from minor tweaks to major restatements. The comparison to her earlier Ginastera recording lies somewhere between. In large, her earlier reading doesn't differ radically from this one. That is, the Ginastera Sonata makes the same major points. I would say, however, that this time out, she lets us appreciate more the structural elements of the score. She emphasizes elegance, while still putting forth plenty of BTUs, whereas earlier she seemed possessed by demons. I don't prefer one to the other. Both accounts deliver. I'd call this performance my highlight of the disc if that didn't unfairly slight the others.

Nissman treads on dangerous ground, as far as I'm concerned, when she tackles Gershwin's Second Prelude, a work which buried itself deep inside me over fifty years ago. Just the opening left-hand part undoes me. It's like hearing the music from under the hill.

Nissman sums up her approach: "As a pianist, this is my only chance to pretend that I can be a night-club singer, singing the blues." That is, she plays with the rhythm in a non-classical way. Most classical artists don't really understand jazz rhythms, and when they try to reproduce them, you get Guy Lombardo and Mr. Acker Bilk rather than Count Basie. I recently attended a live Cleveland Orchestra concert which closed with An American in Paris, where the trumpet soloist made a game try with the great soaring theme in the middle, but he came off as a stiff. He would have done better to play it "classically." Gershwin himself admitted that he couldn't precisely notate what he meant (although many of his musical markings are as detailed as Mahler's). Either you swing or you don't. I won't put this off any longer: Nissman gives a fabulous account. I don't know whether she listens to a lot of jazz or even to the masters of the Great American Songbook, but she is such a great musician that she brings it off. She's obviously a singer at her core. God knows what she'd do if she had a voice.

As with all of the discs in this series so far, the piano sound is to me ideal – clear, yet rounded. So where's volumes 9 and 10?

Copyright © 2013, Steve Schwartz