Journeys of the Soul
One of the most curious disclaimers I've read lately occurs on both the tray liner and booklet of Barbara Nissman's Recital Favorites IV: Please note: No compression has been used in this recording. Therefore, to capture the full frequency range one must listen at a higher than normal dynamic level. Really? You couldn't tell it by me. At my customary listening level, this recording comes right out and occupies all the available listening space, such are the remarkable presence, spatial depth and ambience of the sonics and the marvelous performances by Ms. Nissman. The same might be said of all the releases in this artist's Recital Favorites series on Pierian. This concept is at the farthest remove from the notion of wallpaper: I challenge the serious listener to try and do anything else but attend when he has this generous helping of Barbara Nissman on his sound system. The program features the Concerto in the Italian Style by J.S. Bach, Sonatine by Ravel, the great Sonata in B Minor by Franz Liszt, four pieces by Alexander Scriabin, and Mily Balikirev's formidable fantasie orientale Islamey. It's a daunting program for the hardiest of pianists, but Nissman is up to the task. Her Bach is a joy to listen to, with its sprightly rhythms and stunning dynamic contrasts in the outer movement and its serene melody over a slow-moving, measured bass in the central Andante. The Sonatine has never been a Ravel favorite of mine until just now, no thanks to the vapid accounts I'd heard of it previously. That's no problem for Nissman, who invests her Ravel with a welcome plasticity and depth of compass, without neglecting any of its intimacy or its finely delineated features. The Liszt Sonata has long been a favorite of Nissman's. I like the present performance marginally better than her 2002 recording that was released previously in an all-Liszt recital (Pierian 0015). The tension between control and romantic abandon is superb here, as is the unhurried pacing within a taught framework in which even the smallest element has a vital role to play. We learn more about this incredible work from repeated auditions of a performance such as this, since great musical ideas grow out of the most seemingly insignificant acorns. The Scriabin pieces include three Etudes: the youthful, melancholy Op. 2, No. 1 in c-sharp minor, the mercurial, virtuosic Op. 8, No. 10 in D-flat major, and the dazzling and rhapsodic Op. 42, No. 5 in c-sharp minor. The Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2 for the left hand alone leaves an indelible impression in this performance as it weaves its Chopinesque magic. That leaves Islamey, that beguiling fantasia of seemingly endless harmonic richness based on the contrast of tumbling, whirling dervish rhythms and the heart-stopping beauty of its gorgeous central melody. Balakirev's 8-minute pianistic minefield has long been regarded as one of the pianist's supreme challenges (Scriabin ruined his right hand by obsessively practicing it), but the explanations usually given do not often include the obvious fact that the executant is constantly required to shift hand positions, and then fire successive, overlapping salvoes in the build-up to the grand smashing finale. As with all minefields, there is more than one way to get through safely; Nissman eschews the easier alternatives to the most difficult passages that have been printed in many editions and goes right to the heart of the matter. It is a rare instance in which surmounting the greatest technical challenges results in a supreme payback for both performer and listener.
Audio Video Club of Atlanta, June 2010
Again this is the programme of a true bravura pianist as per the Liszt, Scriabin and Balikirev. Also it shows how she centres it on one great masterpiece (the Liszt) surrounded by very interesting foothills. Indeed, this is her third crack at the Liszt which indicates that she has a new interpretative concept not present in the other two. Her answer to my question confirms that. "I tried to capture in this recording the spiritual dimension of the work and the man. I believe this work represents Liszt's spiritual journey between life and the hereafter and hopefully that comes through in this recording. This is a work that keeps changing as I keep developing." Schönberg once said in quoting Stefan George for his first official venture into atonal writing in 1907 with his second string quartet, "I feel air from another planet." That is exactly the feeling I got when hearing this new version of the Liszt. Nissman has arrived at that exalted state- a true transcendental performance. Rather than being a body with a soul I am a soul with a body, we all think, when we reach that stage of spiritual awareness in our lives, Nissman included, as one cannot inject into a performance something one hasn't got. In her journey to the spiritual, technique, intellectual structure and dramatic structure have all been transcended. But this in itself has influenced the other three levels. For instance Nissman's intuitive rubatos and tempo judgment of each section have that feeling of rightness. This opens the door to clear paragraphing and therefore a deeper insight into its structure. This version articulates the work's remarkable thematic transformation more lucidly and its broad structure of a cleverly disguised work of three movements. A former well known pianist/composer who also had the Liszt in his repertoire once told me, "It's a wonder composers didn't give up writing piano sonatas after the Liszt." Nissman's deep insights reinforce that. This is her most profound version yet. The foothills? Nissman's elegant dynamic shading on the soft side gives us an intimately scaled back Ravel Sonatina just as it should be. Once you transfer Bach's popular Concerto in the Italian Style to piano, you lose the rationale as to why Bach titled it as a concerto. His terraced dynamics clearly audible on a two manual harpsichord give it that clear solo/tutti baroque concerto feel. Piano often smudges that difference by bringing on the later development of continuum dynamics of crescendo. However Nissman's crisp fingerwork and assertive playing made it a fine piano rendition. The swine among the Scriabin études is the D flat one. As if right hand thirds at this speed are not enough, he makes the pianist really sweat when he brings in the left hand in syncopated accents later on. Nissman's bravura gave it a smooth ride, as did her Balikirev with the right hand rondo idea in perpetual double notes, mostly thirds and octaves. Its fearsome virtuosity is still a reality, but it has become something of a dated bravura warhorse. However Nissman's refreshing playing and clarity gave the old nag a new set of clothes. Directness and freshness are Nissman's two predominant qualities in making these foothills such flavoursome hors d'oevres to her unforgettable Liszt sonata a landmark.
Ian Dando, New Zealand Listener 1/10