Barbara Nissman gives us a dynamic and emotionally aggressive Liszt, virtuosic and poetic.
LISZT: The Transcendentals: Twelve Etudes; Funerailles, October 1849; Valse Oubliee No. 1 in f-sharp minor – Barbara Nissman, piano – Three Oranges Recordings 3OR-22, 75:18 (1/31/17) [www.threeorangesrecordings.com] ****:
Barbara Nissman,long associated with the music of Franz Liszt, turns (rec. 1-3 August 2013) to his most imposing legacy, his 12 Transcendental Etudes (1852 edition), recast in more accessible form by the composer from his 1837 version, which Berlioz had deemed impossible for any other artist to realize. Schumann had been only slightly more optimistic, calling them “studies in storm and dread for, at the most, ten or twelve players in the world.” Much in the spirit of the Chopin Preludes, which follow the circle of fifths, the Liszt Etudes follow a pattern of descending thirds, starting in C Major and working their way to b-flat minor. In the course of the progression – or spiritual journey – Liszt consolidates his consummate keyboard technique while paying homage to his arsenal of Romantic rhetoric and heroic gestures, his capacity to embrace ecstasies of emotional extremes that look to Dante as their analogy in imaginative expression.
Nissman opens with two preliminary works that no less exemplify the Liszt spiritual polarity. The Funerailles from his collection of Harmonies poetiques et religieuses (1849) laments the fall of those heroes who participated in the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1848, while utilizing some of the blazing chords from the Chopin Heroic Polonaise that might well serve as a testament to the deceased Polish genius who passed away 17 October 1849. The performance here embraces tragic yearning and tender pathos, as bitterly grief-stricken as it is commanding and impetuous. The late Valse oubliee No. 1 perhaps looks back nostalgically to Paris, at first somewhat haltingly, but then with a colossal gesture of passionate embrace. If the Funerailles communicates a solemn, national gravitas, the Valse illuminates a virtuosity of technique and the ‘moveable feast’ that was Liszt’s extraordinary life.
Let the digital feast begin, proclaims the C Major Preludio, its scales and runs whose staccato fortes demand and effect our utter attention. The a minor Etude salutes the Beethoven Fifth, molto vivace a capriccio, presented in a series of explosive motions that Busoni deemed rockets. Nissman does not stint on the flashy, potently muscular impulse that drives this little demon. Homage to Chopin: The F Major Paysage, Poco adagio, in 6/8, almost serves as a barcarolle in spite of its invoking a landscape. Indicated to be played sempre legato e placido, Nissman’s realization seems more percussive than the dolce and dolcissimo markings, but her descent into the lowest register has a soft depth. The d minor Mazeppa Etude provides the kind of firepower opportunity in octaves and thirds she thrives upon. The crackling opening chord sends Mazeppa on his wild ride described by Victor Hugo, softening and glistening in arpeggios and washes of liquid sonority that ring by way of Nissman’s Steinway D. Mazeppa’s horse and he fall in a series of staggered and staggering broken chords, but he is said – and definitely heard – to rise a king in a triumphant apotheosis.
Nissman moves to B-flat Major and the so-called Feux Follets, a punishing study in lightness of texture, played Allegretto but with evanescent, swirling staccati and flexible wrist action. The dynamic remains restricted as well, flitting to barely a forte but giving the impression of those “dancing rocks” in Coleridge. Incredibly dense, the next Etude, “Vision,” is a G Major Lento that compresses ghostly figures against the plainchant Dies Irae. Here, Nissman can release her athletic and potent dark chords, marked by Liszt con strepito, loud and clangorous, in massive octaves. Some of the figures well recall the “Ocean” Etude of Chopin from his Op. 25. Marked Tempo di Marcia, the so-called Eroica Etude well nods once more to Beethoven and his E-flat Major Symphony, conceived in brilliant chords and runs, but in the midst of its militant and opulent life in double octaves it cuts off in a pregnant silence.
My own favorite, the c minor Wilde Jagd exploits the 6/8 meter of a massive fox hunt, but its real character remains strictly virtuosic, and punishingly so. Nissman takes its Presto furioso tempo at face value, though she gives its rising middle melody a noble lilt. The triple fortes bounce off the walls, and the frenzied gallop threatens to collapse into demonic chaos, but somehow C Major emerges in a blaze of scintillating light. Nissman flagrantly favors this Etude, whatever else she may claim. A startling contrast ensues in the A-flat Major La Ricordanza, a vast reminiscence of salon days, likely belonging to Chopin. The sense of improvisation, Andantino, invests every note, performed con grazia, and rife with a glittery melancholy and exaggerated rhetorical fervor.
Though nameless, the f minor Etude (marked Allegro agitato molto) could borrow once more from Beethoven and announce itself Appassionata. In the midst of blazing fireworks – in askew triplets, chords and octaves – Liszt wants a sense of peace to arise, paradoxically, from his demands for accentato ed appassionato assai, tempestoso, disperato, and precipitato. The dynamic indications bear the future stamp of Scriabin, and Nissman carries them off with forceful aplomb! Another dramatic juxtaposition occurs here in Harmonies du Soir in D-flat Major, a meditative nocturne, Andantino, on the power of evening and evensong. If a poet has any analogy to this introspective poem, it might be Novalis. The music moves to E Major, and Nissman’s left hand must imitate a harp. She appears a mite aggressive where other pianists seek more poetry, but the call for “triumph” by Liszt has a true disciple here. The final b-flat minor Etude, Chasse-Neige, invokes a winter blizzard rife with tremolo effects that effect falling snow in rapid, alternating chord progressions. The left hand pattern embraces the fierce winter wind. The building intensity of octave runs marked Quasi cadenza have been kept in sonic check by the able talents of recording engineer and editor Bill Purse, who has retained Nissman’s massive sound without distortion.