Barbara Nissman, as her name suggests, is not Hungarian, but few would guess it from her playing. Her commitment to every note is palpable, her pianistic command formidable, her psychologically penetrating emotional canvas revelatory, and her ability to combine eloquence with structural illumination is uncommon in every degree. Her programme, too, is refreshingly unusual, starting with the early, unpublished and very Brahmsian sonata (1898), which she discovered some years ago at the Morgan Library in New York City. Then come the Two Elegies, the Improvisations Op 20, the Four Dirges and, finally, a tremendous account of the Rhapsody Op 1.
PIANO (UK) May, 2006
The sonata that receives its first recording here is not the powerful score written in 1926 at the height of Bela Bartok's fame but, rather, a student effort from the composer's 17th year that lay undisturbed and unpublished in the manuscript collection of New York's Morgan Library until Barbara Nissman found it while researching a book on Bartok's piano music. The music is that of a gifted young pianist eagerly imitating the great masters he was studying at the time -- Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Wagner, among others. If this pastiche sounds not at all like the Bartok one expects, it's interesting to discover the influences he had to reject before finding his true voice. The inclusion of this somewhat overblown piece of juvenilia in Nissman's intelligently conceived and idiomatically played program allows one to trace the process through which Bartok threw over other musical traces as well -- from the Scriabinesque chromaticism of the early Elegies and the Four Dirges drenched in Debussy, to the Opus 1 Rhapsody (with its strong debt to Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies), ending up with the wonderfully earthy "Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs" (1920).
Nissman makes as formidable an interpreter of Bartok as she was of Prokofiev and Ginastera in her previously issued sets of their complete piano works. Her pianism matches the music's fantasy, elasticity and intensity, with no trace of percussive brittleness. I cannot imagine anyone playing any of it better. Superb sound too.
John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, October 05, 2003
Unpublished it may be, yet this Sonata of 1897 or 1898 is safe in NY's Morgan Library and Barbara Nissman, besides devoting eight pages, including music examples to it in her book, Bartók and the Piano, has now recorded it for the first time. In the four ambitious movements we are reminded of Schubert, Brahms, Wagner, and above all of Liszt; for the young man was already a most capable pianist. So is Barbara Nissman and her performance is quite persuasive enough to convince us that the man who wrote this 25-minute piece will soon have important things to tell us. Not that the Opus 1 Rhapsody of 1904 is the piece one would choose to prove it, for this is Bartók still very much in Liszt's shadow. It is in effect a Hungarian Rhapsody with a strong emphasis on 19th-century keyboard virtuosity and Nissman proves herself extremely capable in such playing. This CD's main interest , however, lies in the rest of the music which is real Bartok. The Two Elegies of 1908-9 are indeed cries of agony; the first arising after Stefi Geyer terminated their relationship. In the second, the experience is more contained, yet the music is more original. The Four Dirges of 1909-10 are romantic and impressionistic at the same time but the Improvisations of 1920 are overwhelmingly the most important work on the CD, this being highly characteristic expression from a fully mature composer. Barbara Nissman's playing is superlative, above all in its rhythmic acuity, and especially here. Indeed in the Elegies and Dirges, as well as the Improvisations, she illustrates precisely the exhortations in her book's numerous Suggestions for Performance.
Musical Opinion (UK), September/October 2003
She also offers a Bartók disc, containing the first recording of a large-scaled Sonata he wrote in 1898 (at the age of 17), along with Elegies, Op. 8b; Dirges, Op. 9a; Rhapsody, Op.1; and the Improvisations, Op.20. The sonata, which takes up a third of the 75-minute disc, is- except for its biographical interest- not very impressive music. It sounds like everyone else but its actual composer, and is neither particularly attractive nor well written. Nissman presents it forcefully, and its presence gives this release discographic value beyond that generated by her excellent performances of the other pieces. The 17-minute Rhapsody represents Bartók's starting out where Liszt left off, and her performance is brilliantly convincing. Although it has little of the composers later style in it, and in lesser interpretive hands can prove thickish, the piano writing has a Bartókian feel to it. The masterpiece on the disc is Op. 20, a reflection (like most of his mature works) of the composer's exhaustive researches into Hungarian folk music. Nissman's performance of it, and the Op. 8 and 9 combine thoroughly thought out interpretations with feelingful and near-improvisational freedom in the actual playing. Nissman's insights into Bartók's music have undoubtedly been sharpened by the research and experimentation that went into her book, Bartók and the Piano: A Performers View.
Turok's Choice April, 2003
This new CD offers the first recording of Bartók's every early and unpublished Piano Sonata of 1898, Rhapsody Op. 1 (1904) Two Elegies Op. 8b, (1908-1909), Four Dirges Op. 9a (1909-1910), and one work from his maturity, the Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs Op. 20 (1920). The unpublished Piano Sonata reveals the 17-year-old student Bartók working Germanic romantics such as Schubert, Brahms and Wagner out of his system. It is repetitious, over-written and completely without personality. Give it a curious hearing or two and move on quickly to his first published work, Rhapsody Op. 1. Although this is still highly derivative (a quasi Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody), it's got a few teeth to it. At least he's getting to grips with his home country's tradition. His thematic transformations are clever, the Lisztian bravura pianism is idiomatic and the cimbalom imitations and gypsy fiddling gestures are evocative. As a true Liszt fan, Nissman relishes anything Lisztian. She lays into the difficult Lisztian bravura with passion and shapes the work uninhibitedly with the free flowing fantasy that the work essentially is. By the time we reach his Two Elegies Op. 8b Bartók has shed the overpowering Richard Strauss influence as in his orchestral work Kossuth. He now has a foot in each century. The flowery decoration is Lisztian, but his lean economy of thematic development and his near atonal writing in No. 2 belong to the 20th century. He has also fully discovered Debussy. With Four Dirges finished in 1910, he has realised that the gypsy elements in Liszt and Brahms are the stuff of urban dilettanti and not true aboriginal music. These dirges are essentially Hungarian folk laments. They are only a hair's breadth away from his mature style. These are profound miniatures with a sparse simplicity akin to late period Liszt in mood. Nissman shapes and pedals them with great care.With the eight Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs you are now in the familiar territory of Bartók's maturity. He transposes the folksongs direct. What makes them original composition are his variations on each one. The impulsive changes of tempo and accelerandi in these Magyar tunes give many of them a witty and capricious flavour which Nissman captures particularly well. Within the limitations of brevity in sleeve booklets, Nissman's notes on each work are very precise and focused. If you want more detail, I suggest you delve into her new book, Bartók and the Piano where you will find full coverage and analysis of all these works. This CD collection is not a ragbag of juvenilia. I sense that Nissman has planned the content judiciously to outline the genesis of a great composer's style, especially if you listen to the tracks in chronological order at first. In that sense, this little journey of discovery to maturity is every bit as fascinating as following Schönberg's evolution to his first totally atonal work the Drei Klavierstücke of 1909, and Stravinsky from his 1902 Scherzo via his Rimskyan Firebird Suite to his completely original Petrushka.
Ian Dando, New Zealand Listener