Ludwig van Beethoven
Famous Piano Sonatas
* Sonata No. 21 in C, op. 53, "Waldstein"
* Sonata No. 14 in c#, op. 27/2, "Moonlight"
* Sonata No. 23 in f, op. 57, "Appassionata"
* Rondo a Capriccio, op. 129
Barbara Nissman, piano
Pierian 0020 Total time: 70:55
Summary for the Busy Executive: Breathable Beethoven.
I've always thought of Barbara Nissman as a specialist in Modernism.
I tend to recall her Bartok, her Prokofiev, her Scriabin, and her
Ginastera. But she really plays all kinds of repertoire. In fact,
Pierian has released a stack that shows her artistic breadth, and in the
months to come, I'll be reviewing many of them. This CD comprises volume
1 of her Pierian Beethoven releases, and I must say I found new things
about her playing that I hadn't realized.
When I was a teen, all my piano -- playing friends played the "Moonlight"
and the "Pathetique." A Schnabel LP introduced me to the sonatas other
than those two: the "Waldstein" and the "Appassionata." I was a bit cool
toward the "Appassionata," but the "Waldstein" knocked me out. My
benchmark for Beethoven's sonatas as a whole remains Schnabel, although
I would never say that he does equally well in all sonatas or that others
haven't bettered him in particular sonatas. However, the virtues of his
playing -- electrifying rhythm, a sense of unstoppable momentum from
start to finish -- correspond to my conception of Beethoven in general.
A suave Beethoven strikes me as not even a paradox, but a contradiction.
My Beethoven has what I like to call "edges." I consequently refer all
others to Schnabel, whose arthritic fingers work to his advantage in
At first hearing her "Waldstein," it seemed to me that Nissman had
missed the mark. Indeed, as a know-it-all teen, I would have dismissed
her interpretation as Just Plain Wrong. I've since come to think of
difference as an opportunity to learn something. Beethoven is, after
all, a composer who invites several different approaches. Obviously,
Nissman's Beethoven isn't necessarily mine. A fruitful question to ask,
then, is what the music becomes and whether it continues to compel.
Nissman's opening doesn't drive like Schnabel's. Indeed, it's a hair
more tentative, and she never does have the drive from start to finish
of the first movement. For Nissman, the musical "shape" -- or, better,
narrative -- means something else.
In his day, Beethoven was famous for his improvising, which those lucky
enough to have heard it characterized as "wild" and "willful." With
Nissman, we get a provisional quality to the music, as if she made it
up on the spot. She puts out an idea, grabs hold of it and rides for a
while, and then falls back to turn to something else, very likely related.
In contrast, Schnabel seems in the grip of the music, more definite and
less free. Nissman hesitates and pushes subtly, at the level of the
micro-phrase, and this gives the music the illusion that it "breathes."
You get this kind of playing most often with Chopin pianists, very rarely
for Beethoven's music. Here, it works to give the sonata its improvisational
spontaneity. In the second movement, Beethoven kind of writes that
quality into the music -- time sort of hangs, as the player gropes toward
the sunburst that constitutes the last movement. Nissman makes more of
a transition and more of a build than other pianists I've heard, not
getting loud or urgent before the beginning of the first rondo episode,
and she falls back plenty during the course of the movement. Consequently,
her highs hit with tremendous force, and the rondo moves in the large
like a juggernaut. I must also say this is the most cleanly-played
"Waldstein" I've ever heard, particularly the piano fanfares at the
I have no idea how many amateurs soulfully moon their way through the
first movement of the "Moonlight" or how many recordings of the entire
sonata have been committed. I do remember the most prestigious piano
teacher in Cleveland forbidding his students working on the first movement
until they could play the stormy last movement to his satisfaction. As
for the pros, finding something new to say about it strikes me as awfully
hard. My current favorite recording, Radu Lupu's, doesn't have that
much originality, but it is indeed beautiful, as is Nissman's, and in
much the same way. It's not that often you encounter a genuine rethinking
of the sonata, like Istomin's. The brief, joyous scherzo second movement
loses a bit of its mania and preciousness under Nissman's guidance.
Here, her playing evokes the classic pastoral. The last movement confirms
Nissman's instincts in general. She doesn't throw everything to the
winds right away and all at once. Everything builds and falls back, so
she reaches a peak several times, with always enough left over to go
higher without banging. By the time she reaches the end, the those
next-to-final bars practically pole-ax you and wring you out.
For me, however, Nissman's "Appassionata" constitutes the best part
of the disc. This is a difficult sonata to find a key to, and I could
name some famous virtuosi who left embarrassing, clueless accounts. All
of Nissman's virtues come into play here -- concern for the narrative
architecture of an entire movement, plasticity of phrase, the appearance
of spontaneity, the feeling that you're moving along with great and
inevitable power. Above all, Nissman gives you an emotional maturity,
most beautifully embodied in the first movement's second subject or in
the main chorale-like theme of the second movement. In fact, her second
movement stands as the finest I've heard. This is no hot-and-bothered
teen or stormy Manfred, but someone who's seen much and reflected on
experience. Nevertheless, there's plenty of passion here to go along
with the meditative moments, particularly at the point where the second
movement flows into the third and the end, where Nissman pours out
Schnabels of electricity.
You also get the lagniappe of the "Rage over the Lost Penny," a late
bauble in keeping with the distinctly odd world of the (grossly misnamed)
Bagatelles, op. 112. The composer has given us a comic portrait, whether
of himself (a traditional speculation) or of somebody else, I have no
idea. It's not "rage," as much as it is frantic. You can practically
see the character bouncing off the walls, and yet you get an overall
note of what I can describe best as "merry," a comic opera in little.
Beethoven's having some fun. Nissman gets all of this.
In short, another winner from Pierian.
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