Barbara Nissman (piano). Three Oranges Recordings 3OR-20 TT: 73:20
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Terrific. When I was a young and callow Puritan, I disdained flagrant finger-flash as empty display. Then I heard Liszt and Rachmaninoff (plus the Chopin “Revolutionary” étude) and realized that -- my! -- such display was exciting in itself. It could act as a spicy gravy to high-quality music. Although all the items on the program require strong, nimble fingers, only one emphasizes virtuosity. Indeed, I sort of wish Barbara Nissman -- one of my three favorite current players -- had thrown in a shameless piece of salon junk by, say, Thalberg. Nevertheless, you will have a lot of pianism to marvel at and even to have fun with.
Domenico Scarlatti invented new textures for the keyboard. Considering only his keyboard writing, I find him better than Bach. Although he produced music in other forms, most music listeners know him for the 500-and-something of what he called “sonatas” -- not what most today think of as sonatas, begun by Haydn and expanded by Beethoven. The term “sonata” was fairly loose in Scarlatti’s time. Scarlatti’s examples have only one movement in two large sections, both repeated. Due to the circumstances under which he wrote them, the demands of his job, he often produced one a day. Despite this hurdle, he came up with something more than just professional; the lot of them show an amazing variety and range of invention. They enjoyed immense popularity throughout Europe during his lifetime. The sonatas in general aim to please, rather than to plumb intellectual or spiritual depths. They fall into broad categories of dances and tender songs.
Scarlatti wrote for baroque keyboards, most likely harpsichord, which threw fast runs and contrapuntal lines into relief. On the piano, the rules of playing Scarlatti seem different. The increased variety of dynamics and articulation allow the pianist to more easily shape the music. Truth to tell, I greatly prefer these works on the piano rather than on the harpsichord. The great Scarlatti pianists command color and dynamics. Nissman is one of those players. The three sonatas on the program all dance. The sonata I know best, K. 96 in D, I first heard on Vladimir Horowitz’s classic Scarlatti Columbia LP (available on Sony 88697806402). A marvelous performance, it differs from Nissman. He more clearly delineates the lines and the rhythm is more straight-ahead. On the other hand, Nissman has more variety of touch and more lyrical phrasing and yields nothing in dexterity to Horowitz. There are some fiendishly rapid repeated notes in this sucker I have no idea how anybody gets through at speed. Both Horowitz and Nissman toss these off, each note distinct as a diamond.
Brahms wrote his three piano sonatas early, from 1852 to 1853: opp. 1, 2, and 4. I love his piano music, but the sonatas remain a tough sell. I question why Nissman included one in an album that stresses virtuosity. Although difficult to play, the virtuosity it requires is hardly the point. Dense and self-consciously weighty, they are hard for me to love. It’s not the motific argument. Although I understand in general what he’s doing, I have no idea what the appeal of the actual music is. I don’t criticize the composing as such; it brims with magnificent headwork. It just leaves me cold. On the other hand, all the sonatas breathe fire and boldness and Sturm und Drang. He calmed down a bit as he got older.
In an unusual five movements, the Sonata No. 3 pays homage mainly to Beethoven (with a little Mendelssohn thrown in). Its opening of wild, rising chromatic fanfares practically screams “Masterpiece!” It makes no bones about its ambitions. A brief passage follows, in which the rhythm of the “fate motif” from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony figures prominently. It’s not really a theme, but a gesture, an image. This contrasts with a lyrical second subject. The complex development works with all three ideas.
Brahms prefaced the second movement with an excerpt from a poem about two lovers trysting under moonlight. Accordingly, the movement takes the form of a love duet, with two principal themes alternating. The first theme interests me because Brahms used its basic shape throughout his career -- falling thirds. It shows up in shows up in such late pieces as the Symphony No. 4 and the Vier ernste Gesänge.
The third movement, a scherzo with trio, begins with a quote from the finale of Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 2 in c. However, Mendelssohn’s urbanity has little to do with the hefty Schwung of Brahms’s appropriation, which reminds me of a saloon -- as opposed to salon -- waltz.
The brief intermezzo that follows has the subtitle “Rückblick” (looking-back, or remembrance), probably because it takes the first theme (the dropping thirds) of the love duet. The fate motif from Beethoven’s Fifth grumbles throughout. I have no idea of the emotional reason why Brahms chose to juxtapose these two things, other than they go together superbly in a purely musical way. Yet music this effective persuades many that it must mean something extramusical.
The finale, a super-rondo with two episodes, crowns the work. It takes a gnarled main theme in an ambiguous f-minor, but unlike most rondos that main theme turns out to be less important as the movement progresses than one of the episodes. Furthermore, elements of the main subject and the digressions interpenetrate, leading to a magnificent coda which throws together elements of all three ideas. It ends triumphantly.
I realize that I have warmed considerably to this work in the course of writing about it. I can say it always made me shrug before I heard Nissman. Her ability to elucidate structure combined with fiery playing amazes me. As I say, she is a great Brahms player. She has prodded me to listen again to his first two sonatas.
Nissman made a great recording of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, but a great Ravel player doesn’t automatically mean a great Debussy player. On the basis of a gorgeous “Claire de lune” (the only other Debussy recording of hers I know), I always wanted her to do more. She doesn’t disappoint. “Masques” -- a title which implies festivity -- is actually a fairly dark piece, written after the separation of Debussy and his first wife. Nissman emphasizes the music’s turbulence. In its simplicity, “Le fille aux cheveux de lin" (the girl with flaxen hair) hearkens back to such earlier works as “Reverie” and “Claire de lune.” It’s certainly miles away in complexity from “Masques.” It’s one of those miraculous pieces where every note seems right. Debussy’s contemporaries joked, “Which girl with flaxen hair?” “La soirée dans Grenade” (the evening party in Granada) shines in Debussy’s always successful Spanish vein. It hints of Spain’s Moorish history under moonlight. A longish piece that gives the impression of meandering, it actually hangs together beautifully. Curiously, its opening figuration echoes that of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. A depiction of Bastille Day, “Feux d’artifice” (fireworks) gives the album its title. One of the composer’s most radical works, it proceeds more cinematically than by argument, although one can see it rhetorically as an arch. The music gives you the sight and sounds of a pyrotechnical display, beginning with bursts, rising in frequency and volume, and then fading away . The end, with fragments of “La Marseillaise” in C over a D-flat pedal, heard in the distance, fizzles out as the crowd apparently goes home.
Ever since I first heard it in Warner Brothers cartoons, I’ve loved the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. It was a favorite of director Friz Freleng (the most musical of the Warners cartoon directors, he knew it by heart), and he used it several times, including in a cartoon in which the gags (without a real plot) were timed to the beat and bars of the music. I believe he did it before Disney’s Fantasia. As a child, I owned a record of Daffy Duck (Mel Blanc, of course) singing the piece to comic words on the perils from duck hunters. Of course, Warners abbreviated the piece. Cartoons were roughly six minutes long and 78s (I’m that old) ran a maximum of four minutes. Imagine my surprise, the piece lasts more than twice as long.
I love both Liszt’s bravura and Schmaltz. From the wonderful opening to the finger-busting double octaves at the end, Nissman actually takes the work seriously, lavishing such attention on phrasing, you’d think she played a Chopin étude. It turns out that she lifts the piece out of the stickiness of pure kitsch. At the same time, she has plenty of verve. Play, gypsies, play!
An extremely attractive program magnificently done and recorded (thanks to her team of Bill Burse and David Barr), this immediately made it to my top 100 favorite discs. Why wait to pick it up?
S.G.S. (July 2022)