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2005 Barbara Nissman Concert Reviews


Old School

Steinway Society

The Bay Area, 2/12/05, 2/13/05


Keyboard virtuoso Barbara Nissman concluded a marathon recital for the Steinway Society The Bay Area, Saturday, February 12 with two striking dances by Alberto Ginastera, offered as an encore for a program that had included music by Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninov and Beethoven. An accomplished pianist trained under Hungarian wizard Gyorgy Sandor, Ms. Nissman sports a big, formidable technique that relishes knotty and intellectually demanding scores; and her penchant for the Romantic, colossal repertory makes her a throwback to the piano traditions of the old school. Utilizing the lecture-concert format, Ms. Nissman contributed a few preliminary remarks prior to each of her selections.


Nissman opened with a group of three Chopin nocturnes, the E Major, Op. 62, No. 2; the D-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2; and the C Minor, Op. 48, No. 1. Having categorized the nocturnes as Chopin at his most vulnerable, Nissman addressed Chopin's iconoclastic classicism, an individualized sense of form entirely self-contained, where a fluid and plastic melodic line finds support in unruly and audacious harmonies, especially the Neapolitan modes. The E Major and C Minor entries had Nissman carefully balancing lyric and declamatory impulses, while the D-flat could show off her pearly play and brilliant fioritura.


Nissman concluded the first half of the program with Franz Liszt's monolithic B Minor Sonata, an epic one-movement work which subdivides into four sections but whose motives and syntax derive from all of the materials laid out in the exposition, a brilliant economy of means that counteracts its hectic and ecstatic sensibility. Alternately percussive and sensuously layered, Nissman took the heroic approach to Liszt's titanic, emotive battlefield, where the forces of life and death wage ceaseless war. In its meditative episodes, Nissman might have been surveying passages from Dante or the Book of Revelations. Nissman's Liszt is cut in the same, epic mold as that of Bolet, Arrau, and Richter, with nothing of the distaff in her digital armory. Each repetition of the stentorian, ballade-like passage had its own, affective nuance, a nod of affirmation to the infinite.


The post-intermission entries, Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and three of Rachmaninov's dense Etudes-Tableaux from Op. 39, made only a momentary contrast with the bravura of the Liszt. The opening of Beethoven's most popular sonata might have provided a brief respite from the whirlwinds, but after a dancing Allegretto, the Presto agitato from Beethoven's C# Minor Sonata Quasi Fantasia struck us like a thunderbolt, especially as Nissman allowed no space between movements. Nissman emphasized the dramatic harmonic progressions in the third movement, aligning this moody work with Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor.


Rachmaninov's Op. 39, claims Nissman, is merely his own D Minor Piano Concerto compressed into selective affects. Buried under tons of tremolandi one finds the inevitable intoning of the Dies Irae from the Requiem Mass, a sequence whose intimation of mortality haunted the Russian composer. What made the Rachmaninov group engaging were not only Nissman's striding tempos and impressive stretches, but the improvisatory character with which she imbued the etudes, particularly No. 9, whose rapid staccato figures could daunt lesser talents, as could the emotional fury of No. 5, a kind of homage to Scriabin's own D# Minor Etude.


The final work of this program, which may have had more notes per square foot than most contemporary recitals, was Liszt's Spanish Rhapsody, a setting of both La Folia of Corelli fame and Glinka's Jota aragonesa, here in Liszt's own two-section style we know from his Hungarian rhapsodies, performed with enough panache to enlighten Rimsky-Korsakov. Liszt lets out all the stops, allowing a shimmering, orchestral palette to engage the piano, calling for Herculean parallel octaves which Nissman ran off with aplomb to spare. Eliciting roars and whistles of applause, Nissman graciously accepted the audiences accolades, sitting down to the piano for her Ginastera encores with the quip, 'If youre not tired, neither am I."


Gary Lemco (   

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