Out of Doors

Barbara Nissman (piano). Three Oranges Recordings 3OR-19 TT: 75:21.
UPC/EAN: 617353859218
Three Oranges Recordings.

Lovely and lively. I've been a Barbara Nissman fan ever since her early recordings, which consisted mainly of Prokofiev and Ginastera. To some extent, writers still think of her as a Modern specialist, but she has a far greater repertoire. I regard her as one of the great interpreters of Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff, all of whose piano music she has explored, studied, and even written about. I'm always eager to hear what she will play, whatever it is, and she has produced first-class Brahms, Debussy, and Schubert. Indeed, I find her recording of the last two Schubert sonatas definitive. She combines the intellect and clarity of Rosalyn Tureck with the power of Richter and the excitement of Schnabel.

In addition to discs devoted to a single composer, she has also recorded recital programs of various composers, linked by some sort of theme. The theme here lies in the title. Of course, many composers have been inspired by nature, so there's no shortage of material directly connected (Grieg's "White Clouds," for example), but Nissman casts widely into mainly "night music," night-mood pieces, as well as an actual nocturne.

Béla Bartók enjoyed an annus mirabilis of masterpieces in 1926, when he produced the Piano Concerto No. 1, a few books of the Mikrokosmos, the Piano Sonata, and the suite Out of Doors. Up to this point, his writing for piano had been scant. However, a trip to Italy in 1925 stimulated an acquaintance with Italian Baroque keyboard composers, while Stravinsky's Concerto for Piano and Winds spurred him to write works featuring piano for his own use. This by no means accounts for all of his composing that year, including the Three Village Scenes. By this point, Bartók's style had changed from a post-Liszt Romanticism to something rather gritty -- for me his most dissonant period. The music -- lean, mean, and sharp -- achieves a power that carried him through the Thirties.

Out of Doors, unlike many "nature pieces," doesn't try to create an inner world -- the composer's response to nature -- but to portray the objects of nature itself. The opening "With Drums and Pipes," for example, evokes the sounds of rural Hungarian musicians playing -- you guessed it -- drums and pipes, while "Musiques nocturnes" gives you insect chirps, the feel of a crisp wind, bird calls, and a high, dark sky overhead.

The Schubert to me has not a lot to do with the theme of the program, but you don't really need an excuse to play these pieces. Schubert's publisher, not Schubert, gave them the title "Impromptus," which indicates an improvisatory character to the works. The more you listen to them, the less improvisatory they become. I don't believe the composer just sat down and tossed them off, especially the first, the longest and most complex of the set -- it comes close to the last three sonatas. To me, it also seems a condensed version of the "Great C-major" Symphony in its developmental procedures. However, publishers in the early nineteenth century had difficulty deciding what to call pieces not based on classical or baroque forms -- roughly the same problem literary publishers had with the rhapsodic poems of the early Romantics, so they lumped these pieces together as "odes," although most of the poems had little in common with the Classical Greek odes.

The first hangs together mainly by an insistent rhythm. Variety comes in through changing textures and Schubert's electrifying, out-of-left-field modulations. There is also a gorgeous cadential motif that marks off major paragraphs. Any other composer would have been so happy to find something that beautiful that it would have become the main matter. Schubert's got a million of 'em and can afford to throw a couple away.

The second skitters along in triple time. You may think of ice skaters. The third sings a heartbreaking melody. It seems a forerunner of Liszt's "Liebestraum" (the famous one), with a similar rippling accompaniment. The first part of the fourth shimmers with ambiguous half-lights, as a melody emerges from within the texture. The middle expresses emotional Sturm und Drang. The shimmer returns to close.

Although the Irish composer-pianist John Field invented the modern nocturne, Chopin set our expectations for the genre: the poet musing in the middle of the night. Nissman, a wonderful Chopin player, shows her mastery of phrasing and dynamics, with perfectly judged hesitations and mini-accelerations shaping a silvery, constantly moving line.

Rachmaninoff composed exactly two pieces he titled nocturnes, both very early works. However, the dark moods of much of his music certainly suggest the night air, as do two of the preludes Nissman plays here. Recordings seldom take up the complete set. I first heard Alexis Weissenberg, which almost killed them for me, because he had no conception of them as anything other than technical displays. Most pianists pick and choose their preludes. Yuja Wang does a splendid g-minor prelude on her Berlin recital disk. Richter seemed to enjoy the g#-minor.

You take a very short step from Chopin to Rachmaninoff. The Russian not only recorded more Chopin than any other composer but wrote piano variations on a theme from Chopin's Prelude in c, op. 28/20 -- the famous lugubrious one. Chopin's prelude is so simple, even I can play it (badly), whereas there's no way in Hades I could get through even one of the Russian's variations. Rachmaninoff had a streak of fantasy and super-bravura that also tied him to Liszt. Of course, no one mistakes Rachmaninoff for the other two. In addition to the influence of Russian folk music on his melodies and harmonies, one also notes a strong imagistic inspiration -- visual and aural -- in his most characteristic work, which emerges from the opening notes of the Prelude in g#, a melancholy Russian tune accompanied by a shower of ice. The Prelude in G makes no attempt to hide its roots in Chopin. Heartbreaking tenderness characterizes it, with one of the composer’s most gorgeous melodies. Why isn’t this more widely known? The first of the preludes I heard was the one in c#, and the second the one in g, both played by a high-school pianist buddy. They bowled me over, appealing to my teen Angst. For a long time, I judged most complete sets by the performance of those two works. It took me a bit to penetrate the complexities of the others. Rachmaninoff became skittish about the one in c#, for the same reason that Ravel tried to avoid hearing his Pavane pour une infante défunte -- every intermediate piano student who got near them just had to play it for them. Rachmaninoff even nicknamed his prelude “Frankenstein” (he also may have been miffed that he received no royalties from the work, due to Soviet copyright complications), but he had only himself to blame. Like the first movement of the Beethoven “Moonlight” Sonata, the prelude is great music that’s relatively easy to get through (badly). Of course amateurs will take it up. The comic novelist E. V. Lucas created a heroine who played only the first movement of the “Moonlight,” telling all her friends that the other movements failed to reach the inspiration of the first (they were also more difficult).

To me, Rachmaninoff's c#-minor relates to the Chopin Prelude in c, not least in its sonority and rhythmic gestures. The 19-year-old Rachmaninoff wrote it shortly after graduating from the Moscow Conservatory. It became so popular that people called "The Prelude," although the composer wrote that and two sets of 10 (op. 23) and 13 preludes (op. 39), all some years apart. It consists of two main ideas -- a cadential figure which opens and closes the work and supposedly represents tolling bells (the composer's imagistic mind again), and a faster section of agitated triplets. The connection to bells becomes more apparent at the coda, where the tolling strongly evokes the coronation scene in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. The first idea is moderately easy to at least get through, the second much more difficult. Rachmaninoff himself recorded the work three times. Indeed, I can't think of a major pianist who hasn't recorded it. A lot of schmalz has been spread on this short piece. Nissman, with a relatively quick tempo, steam-cleans it without sacrificing any of its power. Instead of a stereotypically and sentimentally lugubrious Russian, Rachmaninoff becomes an incisive mind. This is one very subtle and elegant account. I've got little space to document all its felicities, but I will point out Nissman's two magisterial decrescendos in the brief coda.

The virtuosity of Rachmaninoff's piano music leads to problems. There are lots of notes and all ten fingers are working most of the time. Virtuosos can play all these notes, but many find it hard to discern the line of argument or even the melody among all the filigree. The Études-Tableaux comprise a case in point. The title itself ("Studies-Pictures") I believe indicates, however subconsciously, Rachmaninoff's recognition of his tendency to think in images, as well as his warning about the technique required. There are 17 of these suckers in two sets. I find the second set more intense than the very intense first. Nissman does them all magnificently in Love & Loss: Rachmaninoff Vol. II , from Three Oranges Recordings (3OR-10).

Although the three excerpts here inhabit the same emotional universe (gloomy and frightening), the musical means vary quite a bit, so they form a nice group. The first rushes about in a rage and somehow reminds me of Chopin's "Revolutionary" étude in its snowstorm of notes. The texture tends to thickness, with the musical argument quickly leaping from voice to voice. It must be a devil to keep track of. The moody, yearning second for me evokes a seashore on a gray, drizzly day. It gives pianists the opportunity to sing their hearts out.

Rachmaninoff admitted to Respighi (who orchestrated five of the Études-Tableaux) the inspiration of the Étude-Tableau in a-minor. He had been reading his daughter the story of Little Red Riding-Hood and the wolf. I can imagine the kid asking for the story again and again. Rachmaninoff usually avoided program music, I think wisely. He was more lyric poet than dramatist. He thought more in controlling images and emotions than in specific pictorial sequences. Nevertheless, this brief piece is the closest he came to a movie-like "action" accompaniment. Still, if you didn't know about Respighi, you wouldn't have guessed the story. It's really a study in the interplay of two ideas -- growling and menacing runs in the bass (the wolf) versus a flighty flight of notes in the soprano (Our Fleeing Heroine). As such, it's a powerhouse. By the way, I prefer the piano originals to the transcriptions. Respighi, a brilliant orchestrator, did a fine job, but an orchestra blunts the sense of struggle in the music. The fact that Rachmaninoff makes things so damn hard for the pianist contributes to the music's excitement.

The program finishes with sweet treats. Johann Nepomuk Hummel, taught by Mozart and who knew Haydn, Salieri, and Beethoven, was one of the great players of his day. His rondo skips about like a manic puppy, and the main theme burrows its way into your ear, whether you want it there or not. Rachmaninoff's piano transcription of Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream scherzo simply astonishes. I don't miss the orchestra in the slightest. All those rapid thirds and sixths must be hell to play. Nevertheless, Nissman carries them off with amazing clarity and brings out the inner voices as well. Mendelssohn knocks me out anyway, but Nissman magically enhances this gem. It's a honey of a track.

The recital ends with Prokofieff, a Nissman favorite. She's recorded all the Prokofieff piano sonatas and even discovered more to the incomplete 10th. Here, she plays the composer's own transcription of the gavotte from his Symphony No. 1, the "Classical." It's an early instance of modern neoclassicism before Stravinsky and Hindemith and owing nothing to either. It's less a compendium of classical tropes and more an imagining of how someone like Mozart and Haydn would treat modern materials. The symphony has remained one of the composer's more popular works, and quite right, too. The gavotte movement surprises with zany modulations surrounding a lovely, tuneful middle.

Nissman’s discography has shown that she can play just about anything. As a Beethoven pianist, she amazes me with her combination of structural smarts, rhetorical mastery, and justified passion. She converted me to the Liszt b-minor Sonata, a piece I tended to regard as clunky. I’ve also heard stunning Debussy and Ravel. Unfortunately, most know her as a Prokofieff and Ginastera specialist. Ginastera wrote his last sonata for her, and as a primary scholar, she has unearthed additional fragments of Prokofieff’s last, incomplete sonata. Keep in mind that her record label, Three Oranges, pays homage to the Russian composer. However, as time has gone on, I’ve discovered her deep allegiances to Rachmaninoff and Liszt, both of whom she plays in the Grand Manner.

As a Bartókian, she studied with György Sándor, the composer’s friend who, among other things, premiered the Piano Concerto No. 3. Her Out of Doors -- rough, gruff, slightly surreal -- shows a deep understanding, both aesthetic and historical, of Bartók’s music at that time. It’s also atmospheric as hell.

Schubert is just damn difficult to play, although not because it challenges the fingers. His piano music can sound as if he’s just noodling around, for the structures are elusive but nevertheless there. The player must make them clear. Nissman has already proven her chops here in recordings of the “Wanderer”-Fantasie and the late sonatas, among the best Schubert performances you’ll ever hear. The music scarcely sounds “created,” but miraculously spontaneous, like the wind through an aeolian harp. The music focuses the listener not in anticipation, but in the moment, while at the same time, Nissman makes everything cohere.

The Chopin demonstrates Nissman’s eloquent singing line and her mastery of micro-changes in rhythm and dynamics to shape phrases. Her crescendos and diminuendos are seamless and natural. In contrast to many Chopin players, she achieves an emotional effect without plunging into goo. Her Chopin doesn’t swoon on the couch.

As I've said, the musical difficulty with Rachmaninoff sometimes comes down to the trouble of revealing the melody among a flurry of competing subsidiary voices while doing justice to the music’s complex psychology. Nissman “gets” Rachmaninoff. She makes you forget the technical difficulty of it all and presents the composer clearly. Her Rachmaninoff is both elegant and passionate. Apparently, there is a recording of the Piano Sonata No. 2 (original version) in the pipeline. I can’t wait.

Finally, I must give yet another shout-out to her technical team, Bill Purse and David Barr, who produce some of the best piano recorded sound I’ve ever heard. This is one outstanding disc.

S.G.S. (December 2022)