CHOPIN: Piano Sonata No. 3 in b minor, Op. 58; Berceuse in D-flat Major, Op. 57; Four Scherzos – Barbara Nissman, piano – 3 Oranges Recordings 3-OR 24, 76:37 [www.threeorangesrecordings.com] ****: 

Nissman’s latest recorded survey of Chopin contains power, poetry, and majesty.

American piano virtuoso Barbara Nissman (b. 1944) extends the legacy of her own record label with some extremely brilliant Chopin, including his last major composition for solo keyboard, the 1844 Sonata No. 3 in b minor.  But no less epic, the four scherzos, conceived over a period 1831-1843, challenge both technique and poetic fluency in a manner thoroughly idiosyncratic of the composer’s vocal and dramatic style. Nissman has donned the mantle of the late Gina Bachauer, whose own range of repertory and gripping, consummate technique beguiled and dazzled audiences. The present Chopin recital by Nissman (rec. 1-3 August 2013) derives from the campus of Duquesne University, Pittsburgh.

In his own words, Chopin much admired Liszt, both in his own right—albeit with some reservations—as a composer and as a fine interpreter of Chopin himself, particularly of the etudes.  Nissman addresses, in potent declamation, the Allegro maestoso of the Sonata with a grand sense of design and rhetorical fervor, especially given Chopin’s tendency to eschew sonata-form “development” as such in favor of evolving variation. A high sense of improvisation and florid ornamentation suffuses the realization, and Nissman takes the opening repeat to emphasize the graduated, rhythmic inflections that enter the melodic progression, especially for the secondary theme in D Major. Chopin’s bass harmonies and often audacious moments of polyphony carry their own, dramatic weight, especially as foils to the bel canto lyricism of the aria theme. After the stinging last chord of the first movement—and its held fermata—the Scherzo (Molto vivace) moves in quicksilver figures in the right hand, though its secondary (legato) motive, thoughtful, tentative, gives one reflective pause in the manner of an askew chorale.

The dotted-rhythm opening of the Largo suggests a dire character in keeping with the first movement; but the ensuing aria contains a largesse of design and epic repose that keep this movement a thing apart. The evolution of the cantabile song into E Major grants us a nocturne of extraordinary self-possession. The spirit of Liszt does permeate the Finale: Presto non tanto, a study in perpetual motion that erupts after an initial eight bars into a rondo (Agitato) built upon a daunting series of octaves.  Nissman imbues this truly bravura moment in Chopin with all the volcanic fury which it contains. Somehow, amidst the blistering percussion of the figures, a resilient lyricism manages to peer through the thunder and lightning, even if only the “national” vitality of the Polish spirit.

Resting demurely between the epic structures of the Sonata and the Four Scherzos sits the 1844 Berceuse in D-flat Major, a study in itself of plastic, harmonic-rhythm. Alternating tonic and dominant chords, the left hand acts as bedrock under the twelve variations that glisten, shudder, sing, and cavort  in perpetual permutations. Nissman’s hard patina misses the extraordinary subtlety of color Solomon achieves in this mercurial miracle of a composition, but her playing, rife with tempo rubato, endows her Steinway D with palpably vocal qualities.

The two opening chords of the Scherzo in b minor, Op. 20 (1831) announce a driven, ecstatic brand of virtuosity and textural intricacy.  The mortal storm—conceived in distant Vienna—well embraces Chopin’s tortured homeland, desperate to repel Russian oppression. Nissmann does not stint on the convulsive nature of the opening section and its unforgiving ethos. The sudden transition to the Polish noel could not become more startling in its attempt to console a tormented spirit. First, Nissman plays the Christmas song in strict tempo, only to relent in the face of its poetic possibilities. For simplicity of expression, song’s tender energies arrest us, but only temporarily. The two, now spaced, introductory chords reassert the whirlpool of emotions, including the tragic knowledge that Chopin would not embrace his Polish soil again.

The 1837 b-flat minor Scherzo does indeed, to paraphrase Schumann, contain a “Byronic” energy, rife with “tenderness, boldness, love and contempt.” The scale of emotions looms large, alternating dynamics in quick succession, moving in to A Major Trio by virtue of enharmonic modulation. The poetic beauty of this “diversion” assumes various metric guises, each hinting at its own identity. The fluidity of Nissman’s scalar passages warrants the price of admission, as does my preferred reading by Arturo Benedettti Michelangeli. In the cascade of emotions to the finale, Chopin forgets his own tonic-key and lands in a resounding—a la Nissman—D-flat Major.

The 1839 Scherzo No. 3 in c-sharp minor, Op. 39 was the composer Saint-Saens’ favorite: by Artur Rubinstein’s account, he played it note-perfectly, but too fast. My own “model” for a live performance came in Atlanta, by way of Ivan Moravec. A kind of rhythmic vagary establishes itself early, with four beats to the measure rather than three. The often volcanic theme in dramatic, parallel octaves has its foil in the chorale-like middle section, with downward arpeggiations of glittering beauty.  Nissman provides girth and poetry at once to this highly concentrated work, whose Lisztian virtuosity at the conclusion infuses the stormy coda with a kind of demonic exaltation.

The 1842 Scherzo in E Major, Op. 54 both begins and ends in a light, buoyant spirit, in the major key. Saint-Saens utilized it for the second movement of his g minor Piano Concerto. Nissman assigns this wonderful moment a salon-effect, more of charm than of muscular power. Its skipping, principal idea invites any number of roulades and extra ornaments. A moment or two of mazurka-rhythm infiltrates the progression, eventually culminating in a Polish folk song (cantilena) in the most attractive Bellini, bel-canto tradition. If we were to remain suspended in this glorious moment, the mesmeric nocturne would rival that in the b minor Sonata. By the merest scalar transition, Chopin offers the tune once more, altered but no less majestic. Nissman’s demonic right hand takes us back to the “A” section, now fertile in its wizardry and spectacle. Kudos to the Nissman recording team, Bill Purse and David Barr.

—Gary Lemco