Barbara Nissman (piano). Three Oranges Recordings 3OR-27 TT: 62:44.
UPC/EAN: 617353859454
Three Oranges Recordings

Revelations. Only a small portion of Beethoven's piano sonatas gets played and recorded with any regularity, mainly the late sonatas and those with nicknames. You usually have to go to complete sets for the rest, and that remnant is well worth the expense. You can find astonishing things in all of them. Barbara Nissman has done a brave thing and recorded three rarities, all of them early (#12 written in 1801). She titles the album Beethoven: The Virtuoso, because with the exception of the "Hammerklavier" and the Concerto #5, we normally think of Beethoven as a "philosophical" rather than a virtuoso writer, especially from the perspective of Liszt and Rachmaninoff, but Nissman makes a strong case. She highlights the new, complex piano textures, his steps away from Haydn and Mozart, and his use of the entire keyboard, especially the high and low extremes. Of course, in these pieces, Beethoven is musical architect, philosopher, and virtuoso all-in-one.

Sonata #3, written as the last of a set of three dedicated to Haydn, in many ways says "buh-bye" to Haydn's conception of the piano sonata. The expressive range widens, the architectural span extends, and the fingers work more busily. The character of the ideas and the piano writing itself reminds me of Beethoven's Piano Concerto #1, both written in 1795. Furthermore, clearly Beethoven searches for ways that unify large spans of music, even at the early part in his career, before such works as the Concerto #4, where all the music comes from the opening measures, and the Symphony #5, where the "fate knocking at the door" motive appears in every movement. Here, the unifying element is what I would call the "shake."

It begins in the opening measures, followed by a gesture of expectation and rests. The first strain unfolds, somewhat conventionally, until Beethoven breaks in with a theme Wagner described as crockery getting smashed, followed by double octaves broken up and syncopated. Beethoven in this movement breaks his themes into tiny fragments and then develops each piece. The pieces are highly distinct and easy to track, although there are a lot of them. He winds up with far more material than is normal, thus extending the movement and giving it a richness of utterance. Indeed, the scale of the movement goes beyond most of the time. Still, the mood remains, I think, lightly humorous. The form, a sonata allegro, nevertheless contains a few surprises. The "shake" appears in both the opening idea, its continuation, the crockery idea, the staggered-octave idea, a tender contrast, an end-of-section idea, and the shake all by itself. The variations Beethoven works on all of these in the development confirm his reputation as a master of the variation form (the "Diabellis," and so on).

I promised you at least one surprise, and a major one occurs about a minute or so from the movement's end. The piano ends on a chord, very much like an orchestra announcing a cadenza in a concerto, but of course this is a sonata, not a concerto. Nevertheless, what follows is definitely a cadenza, ending on a little sigh. We then get less a full conventional recap than a cursory reference to the opening idea and a coda.

The second movement is not the expected song form, but a rondo, and a slow one at that. Most rondos are quick things, reserved for finales and designed to elicit standing ovations when they are over. The music nevertheless strikes me as an operatic aria, very similar to "the abandoned woman" arias, over which the Countess's in Mozarts Marriage of Figaro and Pamina's in The Magic Flute stand at the top. Throughout, one hears little sospiri ("sighs"), a musical figure of two notes, each a half-step up or down from the other. It begins, unusually, in E, rather distantly related to the opening movement's C major. That, in itself, surprises. However, the first theme of the opening begins with a rhythmically altered riff on our friend, the "shake." In the rondo episode, we hear adumbrations of the first movement of the "Moonlight" Sonata.

The genuinely funny scherzo (I can imagine Victor Borge playing it) has a mischievous faux-polyphonic theme. That is, it begins polyphonically and ends up with a simple chordal cadence. The humor lies in the contrast. People credit Haydn with inventing the scherzo, but Beethoven's are more extrovert, even earthier and more blunt. Sly extensions of the main idea and loopy, near-irrelevant octave leaps, as well as an over-the-top serious trio. The movement ends like a firefly's lamp going out.
The finale, another rondo, reminds me in tempo and mood of the last movement of the Violin Concerto. The main theme consists of an upward run of parallel chords which also descend in parallel. The first episode sounds a bit Brahmsian, but of course Beethoven got there first. It sounds fairly straightforward until you realize that, taken at speed, you need a virtuoso to play the quickest notes. Near the end, there's a three-voice trill that more than justifies the album subtitle, The Virtuoso.

Sonata #4, written a year or two later, expands the scale of the piano sonata even more and runs the longest of any other by Beethoven, save the "Hammerklavier," op. 106 (1818). It has the nickname "Grande Sonate," which as likely refers as much to its length ("grande" meaning "large") as to its character. The first movement, in sonata form, simply puts the classical-era sonata in the rear-view mirror. I think of it as Beethoven's first totally characteristic piano sonata. The keyboard writing is brand-new and astonishingly inventive and "orchestral." That is, you hear the keyboard broken up into individual ranges, akin to the sections of the orchestra. The "themes" constitute not melodies, but little more than gestures cunningly strung together -- basic, bare-bones stuff, like the up-and-down scalar fragments, wide syncopated leaps, or the repeated-note drumroll of the opening, which looks ahead to the "Waldstein.". The lyrical ideas anticipate Schubert and Brahms.

One of Beethoven's finest slow movements, "Largo. Con gran espressione" (Slowly. With great expression) represents a Beethoven invention, the hymn-like, meditative slow movement, as in the slow movements to the "Pathétique" Sonata and the Ninth Symphony. Beethoven builds "gran espressione" into the opening theme, where the rests mean as much as the notes. Those rests must bedevil a pianist especially at the written dynamic and tempo – low, slow, and keeping the flow. The rests challenge a player's pedal technique, keeping the pauses free from bleed-over "buzz." The tune seems bone-simple, but every note has to be there. We know Beethoven worried his themes over long periods to get them to sound "natural." Often, the result bore little to no resemblance to the origin. That serene, meditative mood could have sufficed, but at roughly 3:25, Beethoven throws in a surprise. The texture thins to booming octaves in the bass, alternating with tremulous wisps in the upper extremes of the keyboard. Definitely unsettling, its meaning seems sphinxlike because unlike anything before or after. Beethoven soon finds his way back to the serenity, without answering any of the questions he has raised.

The scherzo seems unusual as well. It strikes me as one of the few Beethoven scherzi that begins on the downbeat, and it sings more lyrically than manically. Its grace anticipates Schubert and the allegretto that Brahms regularly substituted for scherzo movements. The trio, a Sturm und Drang passage in minor mode, provides contrast.

The main theme of the finale, a rondo, continues the lyricism (again, it's hard not to think of Schubert) of the scherzo. The episodes tend to be flashy, but Beethoven makes the transitions back to the main subject smooth, simple, ingenious, and inevitable.
In 1801, Beethoven experienced an annus mirabilis. During that year, he wrote his String Quintet in C, the Serenade, the "Spring" Violin Sonata, miscellaneous variations, Piano Sonatas #12-15, and The Creatures of Prometheus. With the Sonata #12, Beethoven, I believe, enters into a redefinition of sonata. First, he fiddles with the standard order of movements, reversing the scherzo and the slow movement. Second, none of its movements runs in sonata form. Third, all the movements are in A-flat tonality (the third movement in minor mode). More important, however, Beethoven extends his musical idiom. None of these movements bear much resemblance to classical rhetoric.

The first movement consists of a theme, five variations, and a coda. Furthermore, the theme itself contains its own variation on repeat. The melody – graceful, charming – to me shows the "Beethoven the crappy melodist" for the canard it is. He could certainly write a fine melody when it suited him. However, he also admired what he called "the bold stroke" or gesture, and much of his music is based on that. Here, he's not storming heaven, but leading you on a fairly pleasant road trip. The first variation pits the different piano registers against each other so as to suggest one instrument handing off the music to another. Variation #2 puts the theme in the bass, with syncopated accents in the right hand, yet another innovative piano texture. A variation in A-flat minor follows, not a key a lot of composers have used before or since, since it involves two fistfuls of flats in the key signature and accidentals up the chimney. Temporary piquant modulations by way of neapolitan harmonies (for those of you keeping score at home) almost immediately return to the main key. This becomes a Beethoven fingerprint. He loved the half-step up, out of the key signature. The fourth variation returns to the major mode, with Beethoven syncopating the melody this time, rather than the support. It also contains more changes to distant keys than before. All of this leads to temporary rhetorical instability, although Beethoven reminds me of a Jefferson cup: you can tip him quite a bit, but he almost always rights himself. The final variation features two types of rhythmic accompaniment: the first in triplets, the second in sixteenths (the beat subdivided into 4, rather than 3). However, the flowing nature of the theme ties them together. You feel it like a gear shift in a car. A gentle coda based on the theme follows. The beat is subdivided into two and gives the effect of slowing down. End of the trip. We arrive home.

The scherzo could have fit easily into a Beethoven symphony. It has the same energy. Again, the writing is less "pianistic" than "orchestral."

Beethoven goes even further in this vein in the slow movement, subtitled "Funeral march on the death of a hero." The sonata, by the way, is the first sonata for which the original manuscript has survived. We see that Beethoven micromanages expression by giving precise pedaling marks, staccati, and sforzandi (sudden accent; needn't be loud, but louder than the surrounding notes), in addition to the usual dynamic and phrasing notation. This movement was so popular in the composer's lifetime that he made a wind and brass arrangement of it, and it was played at his funeral. We hear muffled drums, brass fanfares, and drum rolls. The sonata in general had an enormous effect on Frédéric Chopin. It was the only Beethoven sonata he played in public, and his own B-flat minor Sonata includes a funeral march.

I have to admit Beethoven's funeral march leaves me cold. After hearing many pianists tackle it, I have invariably found it stodgy, while admiring the imagination that created it, but I find myself in a minority. I do wonder, however, whether this is the first time a funeral march appeared as the slow movement of a sonata.

The finale, a rondo, poses problems of tempo. I've heard it so fast I couldn't find the initial pulse and so slow I probably could have caught a bus before the next measure came around. The textures strike me as variations on the Alberti bass. With frequent trade-offs of material between left and right hands, sudden syncopated accents, and near-constant pulse of quick sixteenths, this movement certainly shows off a virtuoso. It fizzes and pops and is gone.

I don't believe in a "definitive" Beethoven pianist, and as I stumble into old age, I more greatly appreciate individual interpretations. However, we must distinguish between pianists who play Beethoven and Beethoven pianists. If all a pianist plays are the hits – the "Moonlight," the "Pathétique," the "Hammerklavier" – he's basically a juke box. Juke boxes are fun, but they don't often go especially deep. A true Beethoven pianist plays the more modest and less well-known sonatas, because these sonatas show the arc of his sonata thinking and because they shed light on the famous examples. Even in these early examples, one hears the seeds of such later works as the "Moonlight" and the "Waldstein."

Nissman distinguishes herself among Beethoven pianists. She brings out connections to others in the cycle and gives the impression, at least, that she has thought long and hard about all 32. Above all, however, she plays beautifully and with a wide range of expression. For me, no other Beethoven player beats her in sheer musicality. She phrases like a great singer. She varies her touch without becoming fussy or precious. She grasps the entire architecture of movements and even complete works. She is also alive to the humor in Beethoven.

She displays almost all of these virtues in the very first movement of Sonata #3. It runs more than ten minutes, and yet she seems to give it to you in one breath. However, she doesn't treat it as flyover country. When that one movement ends, you feel as if you just emerged from an extraordinarily rich experience. Details of phrasing beautifully emerge without becoming a point in themselves. The second movement constantly moves, even through the rests. Her cantabile isn't merely beautiful, it's nobly expressive. Again, the entire movement is beautifully shaped. In it, she convinces you that she knows Beethoven as well as anybody. She delivers not just a funny scherzo but captures the specific quality of Beethoven's humor – extrovert and healthy, the artistic antithesis of his personality. The tones she conjures from the piano are appropriate and at times just gorgeous. All these traits remain in the finale, with immaculate fingerwork besides. My favorite performance of this sonata, alone worth the price of the disc.

I could go on and on with the other sonatas, but I'd bore you with the repetition. Nevertheless, I'll point out some highlights and some quibbles. In the first movement of Sonata #4, the syncopated wide leaps throw off real sparks, without showoffiness. They maintain their proper place in the ensemble. Just by the word "ensemble," I recognize that she has realized Beethoven's conception of the keyboard as a group of conversing voices. She takes the slow movement daringly slow, but it never becomes mired. And those "heavenly rests" melt me like butter on pancakes. The finale contains perfectly judged hesitations and slight quickenings. I hate "Beethoven by the metronome." Nissman makes the music breathe.

She plays the opening variations in Sonata #12 as finely and poetically as I've ever heard. This is great Beethoven playing, imaginative without calling attention to itself. I find it difficult to listen to her playing as technique because it always leads me to think of the composer. I like her tempo for the scherzo, because it allows me to savor details. Too many pianists rush through, just to elicit a standing O. Furthermore, her trio reaches depths you just don't expect in a scherzo. However, not even Nissman can make the funeral march work for me, even though the playing itself is handsome. I think she takes the finale's main a hair fast, and that's my only serious reservation, because it obscures the tasty harmonies and because it denies the movement what I feel to be its proper weight. On the other hand, the crashing syncopations toward the end get my heart thumping.

I'd also like to single out Nissman's technical team, engineer Bill Purse and piano technician David Barr. Through album after album, they have provided her with wondrous piano sound, clean and rich, but not misleading – lagniappe, to be sure, but why not?
I can't imagine a serious Beethoven enthusiast not eager to hear perhaps the finest interpreter of these sonatas, one of a less-than-handful of living great Beethoven players.

S.G.S. (July 2022)