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Bartók and the Piano: A Performer’s View  

by Barbara Nissman

PIANO Review


In this book, the pianist Barbara Nissman, herself an esteemed Bartókian at the keyboard, travels the same route as Dr. Yeomans (though embracing, as well, the concertos and chamber music), but from a different, more detailed, more penetrating, more intimate vantage-point. She is, by her own confession, neither a music theorist, nor an historian, nor a musicologist. Thus she starts her entirely artistic exploration of Bartók's piano music with three strikes in her favour.  One of the most valuable features of this book is the insight it gives into the way a performing artist thinks. It is not the only way. Others achieve great things by many other means. But an artist, a performer, an interpreter is almost by definition an asker of questions, a seeker after truth. One of the great fascinations of art, as in religion, is the way in which different individuals by asking the same questions arrive at very different truths. It is one of Nissman's many virtues as an artist-author that she eschews dogmatism. She is not out to convert or instruct us, but possibly, through sharing with us her own journey, to ease or enhance our own searches (the book is clearly addressed to the advanced pianist) on the road to quite other discoveries.  


Perhaps that is it. An artist is a discoverer  which ironically is not the same, necessarily, as an explorer. Some explore without discovering. Some discover by pure chance. The successful artist does both. Bartók himself said as much, or anyway implied it, in the quotation which heads Nissman's Introduction: "I must state that all my music is determined by instinct and sensibility; no one need ask me why I wrote this or that or did something in this rather than in that way. I could not give any explanation other than I felt this way, or I wrote it down this way. I never created new theories in advance. This attitude does not mean that I composed without set plans and without sufficient control. The plans were concerned with the spirit of the new work and with technical problems (for instance formal structure involved by the spirit of the work) all more or less instinctively felt." (And then there was Stravinsky: "I was guided by no system whatever in The Rite of Spring. I had only my ear to help me. I heard, and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which The Rite passed.")   


By starting with that particular Bartók quotation, Nissman reveals at the outset, whether by design or not, that this is going to be more than a book about Bartók. The search is fascinating, her conclusions mostly stimulating and sometimes revelatory, and the portrait that emerges of Bartók the musician (he was as much a performer as a composer, and she converses with both) is both intriguing and compelling. Her treatment is neither as comprehensive nor as consistent as Yeomans (his book has different aims). Nor does it proceed chronologically. Her principal focus is on the major works, allotting  a chapter each to Out of Doors, the Sonata (1926) and the three concertos. But each chapter also includes an overview and more general discussion of related minor works. Like Yeomans, but more extensively, she offers valuable guidance to the reader/learner/performer (interesting that her suggestions of additional repertoire to explore, at the end of the Out of Doors chapter include specific works by Couperin, Rameau, Scarlatti, Ravel and Debussy) and writes about Bartók's recordings with characteristic perception. In one vital respect, however, the book's production falls below the standard set by its author. The print quality in the many valuable musical illustrations is often barely more than adequate, and sometimes barely that. In a book with so much class, such sloppiness looks like sheer bad manners. On the other hand, the inclusion of a generously stocked CD of Nissman playing Bartók, superbly, more than compensates. But still.

PIANO (UK) May 2006

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