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CLASSICAL  June 2008

CLASSICAL June 2008

Subject:

Nissman plays Chopin

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 20 Jun 2008 14:48:14 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Frederic Chopin
Piano Music

*  Polonaise-Fantasy, op. 61
*  Etude, op. 25/1 in Ab "Harp"
*  Etude, op. 10/3 in E
*  Etude, op. 10/12 in c "Revolutionary"
*  Fantasy in f, op. 49
*  Nocturne, op. 9/2 in Eb
*  Nocturne, op. 48/1 in c
*  Nocturne, op. 27/2 in Db
*  Scherzo #3, op. 39 in c#
*  Fantasy-Impromptu, op. 66
*  Polonaise in Ab, op. 53
*  Waltz in Ab, op. 34/1

Barbara Nissman, piano
Pierian 0019 Total time: 74:58

Summary for the Busy Executive: Chopin as classicist.

Truth to tell, I can pretty much take Chopin or leave him alone.  I
don't swoon over his dreamscapes.  His furies seldom get my blood racing.
Chopin has, of course, rooted himself in the repertory of every advanced
piano student in the known world.  I often get the feeling that before
conservatories hand you a degree, you need to play them some Chopin so
they'll take you seriously.  So just about pianist who's recorded has
committed his or her Chopin to disc.  I've heard some pretty clueless
Chopin - the category into which I assign most of the pianists I've
heard.  It takes an extraordinary player to stop my mind from wandering.

On the other hand, Chopin gives a pianist a lot of room to come up with
an individual interpretation.  Indeed, I don't believe in a "best Chopin
player," but I have heard some fine ones, who tend to follow one of two
broad approaches: the Dionysian and the Apollonian.  The first can give
you something strongly individual (Garrick Ohlsson, for example), with
the down side that you can get bizarre readings that focus attention on
the player, rather than on music.  The latter aims to give you the
illusion of naturalness.  Rubinstein probably typifies this point of
view.  However, you often get nothing special.  Natural degenerates
into bland.

I've always thought of Nissman as Modern specialist, mainly because of
her outstanding Bartok, Prokofiev, and Ginastera.  Her Pierian recordings,
however, have shown me her breadth of repertoire.  She doesn't play with
a one-size-fits-all mentality.  Her Beethoven differs from her Chopin
which differs from her Prokofiev.

As a Chopin player, Nissman knows her own mind.  She imitates nobody,
although if I had to classify her, I'd put her closer to Rubinstein than
to Argerich, in that she wants to let Chopin's music "speak for itself."
An enormous amount of art goes into creating that illusion.  Apparently,
Chopin's music speaks for itself in many different accents.  Chopin's
tendency to decorate his main argument with sidelights poses pianists
their chief difficulty.  You've got to know the main road, or you lose
both yourself and the listener.  The Polonaise-Fantasy is a case in
point.  It's primarily a fantasy with here and there interjections of
polonaise rhythm.  Framed with a substantial introduction and coda, the
piece riffs on four main ideas.  A late work, it runs a good twelve or
thirteen minutes, and it strikes me as one of the best, most coherent
pieces of Chopin's maturity.  Nissman's virtues come to notice almost
immediately.  One remarks on her superb dynamic control to shape the arc
of the introduction (fairly substantial, about two-and-a-half minutes
long).  The increase in volume is noticeable but very nicely judged.
She handles climaxes in general superbly.  She always knows the arrival
point of the music, where all the tension breaks - a big deal, since
Chopin often tempts the player with a false climax, before the real one
comes along.  In short, Nissman always has power in reserve.  You feel
she can get louder without banging (not always Rubinstein's strong suit,
incidentally).

The Etudes, opp. 10 and 25, may constitute my favorite Chopin, aside
from certain fugitive pieces.  They have the distinction of being both
real studies of piano technique and real music.  Nissman gives a nice
sample: from the pop hit "Revolutionary" to the salon morceau "Harp" to
the noble E-major.  Actually, I like piano-pounding in the "Revolutionary."
I'm that shallow.  Here Nissman strikes me as too tasteful, unfortunately.
However, the "Harp" is a joy.  Nissman's rubato - her pressures and
hesitancies in rhythm - vivify the musical line without distorting it.
One gets the impression that the piano breathes.  The little tail in the
bass that Chopin appends to the work for once seems not an afterthought,
but seamless with the rest.  The E-major etude under Nissman's fingers
has much of Schumann's inwardness.  She minimizes Chopin's frills to
create a line of steel.  Indeed, one takes a very short step from here
to Brahms.

The f-minor Fantasy, another extended work, baffles many pianists.
Arrau's recording, for example, aims for grandeur, but very little else.
Nissman travels a wide emotional territory.  It's an elegant reading,
but it packs a punch, particularly at the quick-march section, about
five minutes in.  Nissman manages to switch emotional gears without
grinding them.  She gives us a feeling for the whole, as true of her
generally as of this specific piece.

Nissman also gives us a smart selection from the nocturnes that shows
the composer's range.  The first nocturne is really a waltz, the second
a slow march, similar to the funeral march in the piano sonata, and the
third what we normally think of as a nocturne, a night song.  I confess
I like the op.  27 nocturne best, and Nissman gives an eloquent, noble
reading.

I think of Chopin's scherzi as his "wild man" music - full of fantastic
ideas and sharp contrasts.  Argerich's playing approaches my ideal.
Nissman disappointed me a bit, because she takes a balanced, "classical"
view.  The playing is fine, but to me she misses the point.

On the other hand, I can't imagine her performance of the Fantasy-Impromptu
bettered.  There's enough Sturm und Drang in the first idea as well as
delicacy in the lyrical bit ("I'm Always Chasing Rainbows").  Yet the
two moods don't fight one another.  They hang together beautifully, like
sunlight piercing the clouds.

The A-flat Polonaise in many ways seems to me the most individual
interpretation on the disc, and she arrives at it simply by scrubbing
its face.  She takes the piece back to its dance roots, rather than pumps
in the steroids for a Big Statement.  The latter has been the norm of
most well-known virtuosi for decades, especially in the wake of Polish
nationalism.  However, Nissman makes me wonder how Chopin played it.

I don't presume to speak for dedicated fans of Chopin, who may well miss
the usual cheap thrills pianists often go for.  However, for a view of
Chopin the classicist, the man who studied Bach, Nissman's quite persuasive.

The acoustic strikes me as a bit dry, but intimate.

Steve Schwartz

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