A truly exceptional occasion even among these generally outstanding performances was Nissman's account of the Chopin Polonaise-Fantasy, the chief point of which is not so much the pianism as the musical insight. An elusive piece, Chopin's Op. 61 was misunderstood for a good century after its publication in 1843, yet is here fully comprehended. On virtually the same level, the Op. 49 Fantasy with its extremely varied content, is another work hard to grasp for both player and listener but is masterfully shaped, completely understood by Nissman. In similar terms, I must speak of the Nocturnes, Etudes and other items on Pierian 0019.
Musical Opinion (UK) March-April 2006
Summary for the Busy Executive:
Chopin as classicist.
Those who go for flashy brilliance in Chopin need not read the rest of this review. Barbara Nissman plays with poetry and restraint, combining romantic sensibility with contemporary clarity. No moment stands out; everything has an organic logic. The melodic line and its subtle rise and fall are what Nissman emphasizes in the Harp, Revolutionary, and E-major Etudes. These are thoughtful ways of working out problems of technique and balance. Nissman plays with old-fashioned rhythmic elasticity; it is impossible to guess when she will slow down or speed up, but she is never wayward or arbitrary. The opening of the F-minor Fantasy and the rolled chords in the chorale of Scherzo 3 have an authentic 19th century feeling, but her crisp tone often seems modern. Lacking perfume, her nocturnes are gentle late-night contemplations. The Waltz in A-flat dances freely, with lots of rubato; the Fantasy-Impromptu is fluid and understated. Some will want more brio in the Polonaise in A-flat and Polonaise Fantasy, but I find the charm and lack of banging refreshing. Nissman writes her own notes; like her playing, they are probing and cliché-free. Perahia and Ax reign supreme among more restrained Chopin players, but this album is worth hearing. The recording is aptly unostentatious.
American Record Guide May/June 2004
The more I hear this pianist the more I greatly admire how fingers, intellect and feeling are so perfectly integrated and all working at such high level. Fingers govern her outstanding bravura technique. As a proven Liszt and Prokofiev pianist one naturally expects this and gets it in full measure in her virtuosic Polonaise in A flat and those delicately rippling passages decorating the broad hymn in the Scherzo In C sharp minor Op 39. What pushes Barbara Nissman's bravura on to cloud nine is her high degree of clarity. Even in the most emotive virtuosic passages such as those powerful double octaves in the above Scherzo, not one note is fogged. In her Etude in A flat Op. 25 No. 1 with its wealth of wide feathery arpeggios, which Schumann likened to a richly vibrating Aeolian harp, every note of those background arpeggios is impeccable. Class, poise, elegance, call it what you will. This is technique of an aristocratic level. Nissman's recent book Bartok and the Piano reveals a keen analytic mind. She makes a strong point that a pianist who doesn't first look at intellectual matters of structure and style is flying blind. Such a pianist would put the Polonaise-Fantasy Op. 61 into a tailspin. Structurally it is an elusive work to cohere because its many diverse fragments are difficult to unify. Here Nissman's sharp intellect stands her in good stead. She shapes it into the anguished late period masterpiece that it truly is. Ideal differentiation of mood in each of the three sections of the equally long and masterly Fantasy in F minor Op. 49 adds strength to her structural sense. It is a particular favourite of mine and I relished Nissman's poetic insight into it. The third masterpiece which shapes the framework of this recital of 12 works is the Nocturne in D flat Op. 27 No. 1. There is some validity in Nissman's claim that this is the greatest of his 21 nocturnes because of its poetic melodic line and filigree decoration. However the Op. 48 No. 1 in C minor (on the preceding track) is also up there among his top nocturnes because of its range of dramatic breadth. Here Nissman's heart and brain fuse at high level. Her poetic intensity in the D flat Nocturne says all. Intellectually she knows exactly that rubato and ability to make the piano sing are central to Chopin's style. Tempo rubato, that ability to stretch the basic pulse of a piece in and out like a rubber band to increase expressive intensity, is intuitively in your emotional make-up. Either you have it or you don't. If the latter, bad luck. Having to teach rubato is as artificial as teaching someone to fall in love. Here Nissman is the perfect lover! She doesn't even have to think rubato. It spills out naturally according to the points of harmonic tension in each piece. In the centre of the Etude in E Op. 10 No. 3 (the So Deep Is the Night one to give it its Tin Pan Alley name), her wide rubato would cause the uncharitable to call it loose-girt. Not so. In the centre, the rapid gyrations of chromatic modulations almost spin the work out of control. This generates tremendous harmonic tension so that a natural rubato-ist like Nissman will intuitively widen the range of her tempo stretching. Any sleeve note written with enough perception to teach me something new and widen my viewpoint is Danegeld to me. I quote Nissman in her first paragraph: "This recording will underscore the dichotomy that exists within Chopin's beloved piano repertoire; the emotional complexity of its interior world lies hidden behind the lyrical simplicity of its outer layers." Food for thought. What's more she puts it into practice. The dichotomy is palpable, especially the simmering emotional unrest she injects just under the surface of some of the larger masterpieces such as the Polonaise- Fantasy and the F minor Fantasy. To have that rarity today of fine Chopin playing is recommendation in itself. Add to that an innovative interpretation from a deep thinking pianist and you have a real gem.
Ian Dando, New Zealand Listener