Fireworks – Barbara Nissman, piano = D. SCARLATTI: 3 Sonatas; BRAHMS: Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5; DEBUSSY: Masques; La fille aux cheveux de lin; La soiree dans Grenade; Feux d’artifice; LISZT: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C-sharp Minor – Barbara Nissman, p. – Three Oranges Recordings 3OR-20, 73:20 [www.threeorangesrecordinfs.com] ****: 

Philadelphia-born piano virtuoso Barbara Nissman (b. 1944) – in collaboration with producer Bill Purse and technician David Barr – has initiated her own label Three Oranges Recordings, with its quick homage to Sergei Prokofiev, a composer to whom Nissman has expressed devotion both in writing through her recordings for the Perian label. And true enough, the sonic definition on this disc rings with authority, recorded in high definition 24bit/88.2kHz digital and then rendered into the final CD format. A true “American” pianist, in spite of studies with Gyorgy Sandor, Nissman sports a hard, brilliant patina, biting and focused, reminiscent of John Browning or Rosalyn Tureck.

Nissman opens with three Scarlatti sonatas, two of which – in B-flat Major, K. 57 and in A Major, K. 135 – are new to me and demonstrate the pianist’s pliant, rhythmic and digital fluency.  The most “Spanish” of the triptych, the Sonata in D, K. 96 seemed to emerge with an “accent,” meaning it comes to its Iberian, hunting ethos via Nissman’s cultural passport, rather than from within, a la Fernando Valenti or Alicia de Larrocha.  Still, Nissman’s vitality and musical urgency remain undeniable.

The big work, the 1853 Brahms F Minor Sonata, confirms Nissman’s capacity for a vast canvas, colorful and dynamically alert. Nissman adopts a virile, pointed tempo for the Allegro maestoso, its uneasy, “symphonic” balance between Beethoven’s dramatic fury and Schumann’s lyricism.  Despite her linear directness, the Nissman Andante- Andnate espressivo – Andante molto second movement, inspired by the poet Rellstab, enjoys many illuminated moments, mostly in touching sequences. A virile Scherzo, easy on the pedal, leads to full-blooded Intermezzo and rousing Finale, whose last pages resound with Teutonic certitude.

The sudden shift to the percussive harmonies in A Minor of Debussy’s 1904 Masques rather shocks us, especially since Nissman wishes to convey the tragic tension beneath the Italian masquerade. The sonorous pearly-play of the fluttered chords and ostinati make for potent cascades of potent expressivity. The Lisztian upper registers literally foam with vibrant spray. The simple parlando of the The Girl with the Flaxen Hair provides another startling juxtaposition of texture.  The Arabic scale and guitar strums make La soiree dans Grenade from Estampes (1903) an irresistible pleasure, as imaginatively “Iberian” an experience a Nissman’s keyboard can evoke. Feux d’artifice becomes the eponymous justification for this disc, A contest between white notes and black notes, the highly compressed explosion of colors at times elaborates a series of themes-and-variations. Nissman makes the piece shimmer in colossal moments of refined ecstasy that surround the July 14 Le Marsaillaise.

If the spirit of Liszt has been covert, he becomes quite explicit in his popular 1847 Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. The spicy addition of Eugen d’Albert’s cadenza near the conclusion catapults Nissman’s already vigorous,liquid reading into that stellar pantheon we find the likes of Cziffra and Bolet.

—Gary Lemco