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Bartók and the Piano: A Performer’s View  

by Barbara Nissman



Bartok and the Piano: A Performers View by Barbara Nissman Scarecrow Press, 319 p. $49.50 USD, includes CD with performances of Bartok by  the author. ISBN: 0810843013


Our understanding of the complexities and nuances of the piano music of Bela Bartok (1881-1945) has been advanced in past years by such keyboard artists as Peter Frankl, Rudolf Serkin, and Lili Kraus, while recently books like Judit Frigyesi's Bela Bartok and Turn of-the-Century  Budapest (University of California Press) and Benjamin Suchoff's Bela Bartok: Life and Work (Scarecrow) offer welcome details about the great Hungarian composer and pianist.  Indeed, the once-fashionably, aggressive hammered-out performances of Bartok works -as if he saw the piano exclusively as a percussion instrument -seems as absurd as to reduce Beethoven's  achievement to the so-called 'Fate Knocking on the Door' theme from the  Fifth Symphony.  In fact, Bartok was a passionate lyric, with a robust sense of humour, who truly loved, empathized with, and understood folk music in a way approached, but rarely matched, by any other great composer in history.  The American pianist Barbara Nissman, a student of Bartok's pupil Gyorgy Sandor, is especially identified with the music of Bartok, Prokofiev, and Ginastera.  A clean, economical, and evocative performer, Nissman conveys these virtues in her book, a welcome mix of sometimes joshing exhortations to students, observations aimed at listeners and piano fans, and glimpses at autobiography.


Mostly chronological in arrangement, the book reasonably groups related piano works together. The eleven chapters bear titles like The Traditionalist (for works like the early Two Elegies), A New Piano Style (for Fourteen Bagatelles and Ten Easy Pieces) and Bravura, Virtuosity, and Pianism (for Two Rumanian Dances and Allegro Barbaro). There is also a very short annotated bibliography and a sympathetically performed CD, produced by the veteran Dennis Rooney, with David Barr as Steinway concert technician and Joe Patrych as music editor. Nissman rarely mentions her teacher Sandor in this book, but does find room to dismiss his 1977 transcription of the Tempo di Ciaconna and Fuga movements of Bartok's Sonata for solo violin as 'not pianistic', Sandor's views on Bartok are abundantly available in his own recorded performances and interviews, and Nissman's book thereby avoids the contact-with- the-master tone of often disappointingly unhelpful precedents like Marguerite Long. Instead, these are very much Nissman's reflections, much as her playing is her own. She cheers on potential performers with comments like: 'The Rhapsody Op.1 is a genuine piece of bravura and must be performed with unabashed virtuosity: no apologies needed for having fun and showing off at the piano!' Or, a propos of the Dance Suite: 'When I am relearning a piece. I find it useful to pull out the metronome and check tempi; it's helpful for future performances to know if youre prone to exceeding the speed limit or if you can afford to go heavier with that gas pedal.' Other observations are less directly practical and more evocative, such as the notion that the last of the Fourteen Bagatelles 'has the irony and dazed hysteria that one might encounter in a Fellini film.' One can imagine the dazed hysteria of a masterclass full of students if a teacher ordered. 'Play that more like Fellini!  Some of Nissman's personal comments are charmingly candid, such as when she confesses that her own hand is small and doesnt reach beyond a ninth, explaining her fingering choices. She mentions at least twice that she lives on a farm in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia.  She states, 'Sometimes I sit out on the porch and can hear the night.  The buzzing sounds of the crickets and cicadas are constant.Bartok was trying to recreate a similar evening of haunting night music in the great Musiques Nocturnes movement of his suite Out of Doors (1926).' As pleasant as this is to read about, students who live between cramped lodgings, subways, and practice rooms might be baffled at how to profit from these reflections.


On the few occasions when Nissman stretches to express Bartok's wider cultural resonance, she mentions Stravinsky, which is understandable, and also Picasso, less so because of the painter's taste for the wilfully ugly, very un-Bartokian. About the piano concertos she sensibly suggests that more 'rhythmic lightness' and 'lilting quality' along with humour would be welcome, instead of the grim hammering to be heard on too many recordings. She is also droll on Allegro Barbaro, saying that 'this composition has greatly contributed to Bartok's stereotype as the twentieth century's pianist barbaroso.' There are a couple of typographical bloopers, such as when the violinist Jelly d'Aranyi is identified as Aranyi and some iffy judgments on historical recordings, overpraising Bartok's own recording of Contrasts with clarinetist Benny Goodman as 'definitive', whereas the composer himself disliked it.  But these minor quibbles apart, this is a friendly and thought-provoking volume that should provide pleasure and enlightenment to readers ready to delve deeper into the achievement of one of the greatest humanists and musical creators of the 20th century.


Benjamin Ivry, July/August 2003 issue of International Piano



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