Barbara Nissman (piano). Three Oranges Recordings 3OR-26 TT: 77:36.
UPC/EAN: 617353859430
Three Oranges Recordings.

An interesting linked program, superbly played. Pianist Barbara Nissman runs counter to the common image of a "lady pianist." She's drawn to the big knuckle-busters of the repertoire, rather than lighter works, although she plays those magnificently as well. A Franz Liszt head-banger, she also goes for those influenced by Liszt, including Sergeis Prokofieff and Rachmaninoff, and Bartók. In addition to her performing chops, she has a scholar's appreciation of many of the composers she specializes in. She has written and lectured on Franz Liszt, Alberto Ginastera, and Prokofiev, and produced critical editions of Ginastera, whom she knew. He dedicated his third piano sonata to her. Her program links in the following way: Rachmaninoff and Prokofieff were at one time friends; Philip Ramey used a theme from Prokofieff's Piano Sonata #10 in his own tenth sonata. We could call the program, "One or Two Degrees of Separation."

Rachmaninoff's Piano Sonata #2 stands out as the big work on the program. The composer was, of course, one of the greatest pianists of the previous century, and he had certain natural advantages, a huge hand span the most spectacular. In the tradition of pianist composers like Franz Liszt, he also wrote for himself as a performer. The piano writing in this sonata, often turgid, makes me wonder whether the composer had some form of Tourette's, where every finger had to be moving or he wasn't happy.

The piece has the reputation of difficulty and incoherence, and it hasn't entered the standard piano repertory. Rachmaninoff's concerti, on the other hand, are marvels of incisiveness. Why he missed in the sonata is anyone's guess. The work dissatisfied the composer himself. He made a stab at tightening, not wholly successful. He also permitted Vladimir Horowitz to make an edition. Horowitz cut further. When played at all, this work usually gets performed a la Horowitz. Nissman, however, believes that the sonata has gotten a raw deal. She plays the original and furthermore makes a compelling argument for it, although she doesn't completely solve the problems.

The sonata's first movement sprawls, the fault entirely Rachmaninoff's. For me, Rachmaninoff's genius lies partly in the memorability of his themes, and here he falls down. The themes here amount to, for the most part, little more than gestures -- chiefly, the tolling of church bells. This makes for a magnificent noise, and the composer's ingenuity in creating several different kinds of ringing can't be denied. However, you won't be humming the tunes. This is important, since he refers to ideas in the first movement in the later ones. Furthermore, instead of the usual two subjects, Rachmaninoff goes for three, so you not only have to keep track of insubstantial squibs to hold on to the argument, you've got more of them to track. Actually, the second subject, a quiet chorale, becomes the best thing in the movement and represents the composer at his finest. Nevertheless, at a certain point, the composer simply runs out of gas during one of the developments and really doesn't rev back up until the recapitulation. Nissman doesn't entirely solve the problem, but she runs farther on the fumes by coaxing tunes from the bell-ringing.

For me, the second movement counts as one of Rachmaninoff's best works for solo piano since it contains what I love Rachmaninoff for: gorgeous themes, perfectly harmonized. It doesn't quite escape the charge of sprawl, but in this case, I don't care. It consists of three large parts: a gently rocking, slightly melancholic section; a Sturm und Drang  part in which we hear some of the tolling from the first movement; a return to the rocking. Nissman shows how great a singer and story-teller she is.

The final movement -- like the first, in sonata form -- begins with the introduction to the second movement in a new key (the technique of referring back to previous movements is called "cyclic form"; composers, since Beethoven at least, have used it to build large structures as a unifying device). This leads to an exposition of two main themes. The first storms and stamps and contains a memorable string of repeated chords. The second sings in that dreamy Rachmaninoff way, similar to the slow movement of his Piano Concerto #2. The development falls into three main sections and contains many references to the first movement. The recapitulation, unusually, states the main theme only once and uses ideas from the past movements to drive toward the conclusion. Again, this movement has a tendency to sprawl, particularly in the recap, but Nissman keeps a strong grip on the musical narrative.

Nissman has previously recorded the Prokofieff tenth sonata in her complete survey on Pierian 7/8/9. Prokofieff never lived to complete it. At the time of Nissman's recording, we knew only of the first page, so the performance was pretty short. In the meantime, Nissman realized, through internal evidence, that there had to be a second page and she retrieved it from the Central State Archives in Moscow. So we have here the oxymoronic "complete fragment." The incredibly high quality of the music makes you regret Prokofiev's death all the more. Had he kept it up, he would have completed one of the great Modern sonatas. The opening idea is all push and drive -- Nissman rides it like a race car --while the second follows with a lyrical folk-like tune. The fragment fades out to one line -- as you might expect -- and Nissman makes that ending poignant without getting sappy. It goes by in a little over a minute, but it makes a deep impression.

I've never found much to like in Ramey's compositions, although I certainly admire his musicianship and his erudition. His Tenth Sonata left me with my usual take of "Meh." Ramey the composer strikes me as not nearly vulgar enough, with too much good taste for his own artistic good. He builds a well-constructed sonata, but I don't care. Most of the material pitches all at the same level of interest, with only superficial contrasts, rather than a contrast that startles you. I kept waiting for the music to catch fire. Real rhetorical interest occurs only in the last movement of the sonata, a combo meditation and scherzo, mainly in the scherzo. The one idea I definitely remember takes the form of a snarling march, but it doesn't go on very long and indeed disappears after its only appearance. Ramey throughout seems short of breath. No idea gets the time to really establish itself, and few of them seem worth the time. Not even Nissman saves this work for me.

Rachmaninoff composed slowly. Chronically beset by self-doubt, he may have suspected that his facility on the piano would lead to facile work. However, he finished his 6 moments musicaux in what was, for him, record time, about a month. He found himself short of money (not helped when someone robbed him on a train). Nevertheless, he realized that the necessity of getting some spurred him to composition -- in this case, six masterful miniatures, much better than they had to be. The title derives from Schubert's identically titled piano work, and Schubert belongs to a crowd of influences on Rachmaninoff's score, including Frédéric Chopin, Liszt, and even Borodin. Each work, far from simple morceaux, moves according to some classical form, genre, or dance, and Rachmaninoff orders the sections to provide maximum emotional contrast.

The first piece combines a melancholy Chopinesque nocturne with theme and variations. It falls into three large parts: the theme, first variation, and second variation with coda. The theme sticks in the memory, largely due to an initial drop of a sixth. The accompaniment strikes one as typical of Chopin. The first variation proceeds in the unusual meter of seven beats to the measure (most measures contain a number of beats divisible by 3 or 2). Yet the meter sounds completely natural. Its deviation from normal likely passes many listeners by. Here, the lyricism of Borodin enters. The variation ends in a cadenza which leads straight to the second variation, a filigree of quick notes in the right hand which come from the theme. The coda contains elements from all three sections. As I said, Rachmaninoff wrote this work much better than he had to. He could have contented himself with a simple song. He impresses with not only the distinguished quality of the material, but with the care and thought which he puts into its working out.

A virtuoso Romantic étude a  la Chopin and Liszt follows. Rachmaninoff's is practically monothematic. In an unusual ternary form (A B A), the theme pits a rising chromatic line against a falling one, and the B section elegantly varies this with a simple and highly effective rhythmic twist. Consequently, the form is more like  A A' A. Incidentally, Rachmaninoff revised the piece in 1940, but his changes were to the theme, which consists largely of rising chromatic runs which translate into yearning. He left the accompaniment intact, which indicates that to him it was an important part of the little work. The piece lives in a stormy neighborhood.

The next piece, also in ternary form, takes on the characteristics of a funeral march in triple time. One might even call it a short requiem. One can easily imagine the sonorities, full and rich, low and solemn, translated to a Russian Orthodox choir. I love this vein in Rachmaninoff's music.

Many writers have remarked on the resemblance of the fourth moment, marked "Presto," to the Chopin "Revolutionary" étude, mostly due to the unceasing agitated figuration in the left hand. Repeated notes, like military trumpet calls, sound throughout. This piece evokes for me Géricault's painting, The Charging Chasseur: a mounted horseman, sword drawn, leading infantry into a smoke-filled battle. If you can stay in your seat while listening to this, check your pulse.

After the battle, we find ourselves chilling in a Venetian gondola and listening to a barcarolle. The left hand gently rocks the boat while the right sets us slightly, but not unpleasantly off-kilter. This movement has the dreamy lyricism and stunning, suspended harmonies of the Paganini Rhapsody's 18th variation.

The score ends "Maestoso," a heroic étude that requires a heroic pianist. The textures -- melodies doubled in both hands, full chords and then some, and another left-hand accompaniment filled with quick figurations -- can dangerously approach thick mud. Furthermore, the restriction of dynamic range to the loud side means that the pianist needs to pay careful attention to where to place the true climax. If you're banging away and suddenly need to get louder, you have no place to go. However, if any one piece shows Rachmaninoff's mastery of keyboard writing and "orchestration," it's this one. It may not count as the most profound piece of the set, but it remains an exciting, highly satisfactory ending. It helps make the set work as a whole. You feel as if the journey has landed you not at the side of the road, but at a real destination.

Nissman plays with her uncommon combination of intellect and fire. They used to say of Toscanini that he played the Beethoven symphonies as if he were taking Beethoven's direct dictation. It's the same with Nissman and Rachmaninoff. Given her passion for Liszt and Chopin, we shouldn't be surprised that her Rachmaninoff stands among the least self-indulgent and cleanest, clearest playing out there. For me, the moments musicaux counts as the program highlight. I pay her the highest compliment when I say she disappears and Rachmaninoff gloriously emerges.

Again, Nissman's producing and engineering team of Bill Purse and David Barr create a sound both rich and clear. You can hear a brilliant player -- and of living pianists, one of my two current favorites -- making music sound better than you ever thought it could.

S.G.S. (June 2022)