2006 Barbara Nissman Concert Reviews
Oberlin College: Stellar Pianist Performs for Oberlin AIDS Project
In Franz Liszt's Piano Sonata in b minor, pianist Barbara Nissman took my very soul out of my chest and played it back to me. She performed beautifully onstage at Warner Concert Hall last Sunday as a part of the AIDS Quilt project with several colorful but rather daunting 12 by 12 sections of the AIDS Memorial Quilt hanging behind her.The concert opened with a short introduction by Robert Frascino, OC '74 HIV-positive College Trustee. Then he gave the stage to the music, and what amazing music it was.
Chopin's Nocturne in D-flat was mesmerizing, magical, subtle and enchanting, full of shadows, colors, and emotions. Barbara Nissman possesses extraordinary pianism, which allows her to craft her interpretation to the highest level of perfection. Her hands freely floated above the keyboard and transformed mere hammers hitting strings into a transcendental experience. Nissman touched the keys lightly, tenderly, with much elegance and grace. The transparent texture was satiated with so much meaning. Such bright, crystal melody lines, such naturally placed breaths, such adorable beauty are rarely to be heard. Her musical taste, which was following the right concept of style, was a pure delight. After the last chord, there was no candy unwrapping.
In her introduction to Chopin's Polonaise-Fantasy, Nissman explained that it was written in a very dark period of the composer's life when he was physically ill and horribly depressed. The mood was set. Any printed music carries the problem regarding sincerity and spontaneity of the performance. It is hard to bring the cold text on the page to life. Obviously, not for Nissman: from the beginning she played freely, as if she were improvising it right at the moment. She grabbed the audience's attention and guided them through every note. Diverse and fresh, each new phrase started without letting the listener take a breath after the end of the previous one. The determined, heroic passages in forte lacked the usual battering quality that Chopin often receives from a number of performers. The virtuosic runs lost the cold showiness usually associated with the term virtuosic- light and charmingly fluttering, they sparkled through Warner like pearls. The Polonaise's many contrasts were achieved with almost fearsome ease. Nissman changed colors in an instant, wavering from one exuberant state to another, without tiredness, without a stop and the listener had to follow, because there was no way out of her music. An absolute splendor.
Liszt's Sonata in b minor followed. This piece is about the spiritual journey between life and death, said Nissman. The dark beginning, with its lonely, profound basses, was breathtaking. All the virtuosic effects-octaves, trills, parallel thirds- were powerful and triumphant without being aggressive. And there was beauty, such a supreme beauty even in the simplest scale. Even as the music was getting faster and faster and I was afraid that it might stumble over the edge, Nissman held everything in control without an effort. Liszt's lyrical melodies are so easy to lose in the hoard of chords, arpeggios and other typical Lisztian fireworks, but Nissman didn't allow that in her performance. It was all about layers upon layers. It was emotionally exhausting to listen to and yet, I was crying for more.
After the intermission Nissman played Alberto Ginastera's Sonata No. 3, the last work he composed. It was dedicated to Barbara Nissman and she remembers that the composer intended it as a concerto for piano, percussion and orchestra, but since he wrote it from his hospital bed days before his death, the piece turned into a short piano sonata. A stunning short piano sonata. "I'm playing this for all the pianists in the hall with the hope that they will like it and want to perform it," Nissman said. Another powerful beginning started off. More virtuosic octaves rolled around with no difficulty, glissandos occupied the whole range of the keyboard, Nissman bravely jumped at dangerous chords. Offbeat sharp accents and repeating elements, the music was building up and down in energy level in a matter of seconds.
The last piece in the program was Prokofiev's Sixth Sonata, one of the so-called war sonatas. "Prokofiev took off where Liszt ended," said Nissman. "He is considered the Russian Liszt and actually the Russians labeled him the football composer. Still, I consider him a Romantic composer." She also said that she likes to program Prokofiev because she wanted to redeem him. Exact, strict chords dominated the texture, as Prokofiev loves to do. There were crossing of hands, enormous contrasts all flawlessly delivered by Nissman. Even tenderness and lightheartedness found their way through- something that is not typical for Prokofiev, who is considered cold and ironically humorous. Various characters were brought to life, amusingly differing from one another. Nissman called the first and last movements the two pillars that hold up the sonata. The lighter second and third movement followed. Nissman demonstrated the thousand existing ways to approach and touch the piano. The jazzy third movement, she believed to be part of a common influence between Prokofiev and Gershwin, who had recently become acquainted around that time. The rapidly changing harmonies were dreamy, sometimes serious, sometimes even tipsy. The fourth movement delivered the promised virtuosity beyond belief, which Nissman presented without a notion of tiredness. It also sounded mystical in some sections. Bright and flashy statements in upper octaves burst out, some recitative-like passages sounded even distressed- all interpreted with the exceptional freedom of Barbara Nissman.
The evening ended with an encore of a Liszt Consolation. Beautiful, natural, living and breathing, it was crafted like a porcelain statue, longing. I have to say beautiful at least once more. "I played with all my heart and the evening's performance here, in Oberlin, was very special to me," Nissman said.
It was pure soul music.
The Oberlin Review 3/3/06