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Barbara Nissman on Pierian Records

Pictured with her composer friend in 1981, Barbara Nissman has achieved a long held ambition by performing Alberto Ginastera's piano concertos (all in one day !). A major achievement by any reckoning and the more so by a fine - ? great - ever youthful pianist of advancing years (why still so coy?).

Musical Pointers has supported Nissman since she gave me her pioneering first complete recording of Prokofiev's sonatas at an academic engagement in London.

The three Ginastera concertos (1935-72) are very well contrasted to make a programme that many will be happy to play straight through. The "2nd" (but actually last) is huge (33 mins here) begins with 32 variations based on Beethoven, has an unique scherzo for right hand alone, and finishes with a prestissimo toccata inspired by Chopin's Bb minor sonata finale, the whole a magnificent creation which Nissmanfervently hopes young pianists will discover and propel it into the staple concerto repertoire of the 21st Century.

Two of the concerto recordings here are world firsts*, and Nissman is well supported by her Michigan University orchestra, for which no apologies or allowances are needed.

Hopefully this release might prompt music colleges both sides of the Atlantic to put on Ginastera events with Barbara giving master classes, and playing one of the concertos alongside students tackling another. Any takers?

With Prokofiev and Ginastera as its pillars, Barbara Nissman's discography will ensure her lasting reputation as a repertoire pioneer in piano recording history.

Do surf her splendidy updated website, which celebrates also her academic work with our review of her book on Bartok's piano music.

During the 2003 anniversary year, Nissman “The reigning Prokofiev specialist” performed his five piano concertos with orchestras throughout the US, Europe, Russia and the Far East. She is currently at work on her second book, Prokofiev and the Piano: A Performer's View.

Congratulations, Barbara, and looking forward to your next recording - a reminder, DVDs have been promised !

Peter Grahame Woolf (2012)

photo credit: Jesus Moreno

GINASTERA: Piano & Chamber Works PIR0005/6
: Complete Piano Sonatas and Other Major Works PIR0007/8/9
LISZT: Sonata in B Minor, Paganini Etudes , Rhapsodie Espagnole, Consolation No.3 PIR0015
: Sonata (1898); Rhapsody, Op. 1; Improvisations; Two Elegies; Four Dirges PIR0016
: Polonaise-Fantasy; Three Etudes; Fantasy in f minor; Three Nocturnes PIR0019
: "Waldstein" "Moonlight" "Appassionata"  Sonatas and Rondo, Op. 129 PIR0020

RACHMANINOFF The Complete Preludes & Etudes-Tableaux

Pierian PIR 0028 & 0031

Not a well-known name in UK, I encountered Barbara Nissman as a vivacious lecturer in an academic meeting about Prokofiev at Senate House, University of London. Happily, the day ended with a short piano recital, after which I received for review her CDs of the complete Prokofiev sonatas.

Since then I have a batch of Barbara Nissman's recordings made at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh (Pierian Recording Society, a non-profit, tax exempt organization, which deserves support for its dedication to preserving 'historic performances and obscure repertoire'). They can be bought from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

And also her imposing book on Bartók's piano music, which confirms Barbara Nissman's communicative skills in words as at the keyboard (the book includes a CD to illustrate the text). There are insights on every page and it is notable for its practical perspective by a pianist who has studied and performed the whole corpus of this great composer's piano music. To sample it, look at the thorough analysis of Mikrokosmos, the teaching pieces begun for Bartók's son Peter, and often composed quickly during his lessons. We can all manage at least some pieces from the earlier books, designed to cover progressively the succession of musical and technical pianistic problems faced by the beginning student. Bartók recommended that by Book 4 students should be ready to tackle the smaller pieces in the Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook, and also that some of Mikrokosmos was suitable for harpsichord. (I used Mikrokosmos to teach my sons music and piano, and when I was a student I even recorded some of the pieces on clavichord !)

Barbara has been a welcome house-guest of ours for several weeks! There is in her recordings a rare combination of unassertive virtuosity, which never draws attention to itself, and an identification with each of her chosen composers. The liner notes by Barbara Nissman too are illuminating, as are those from the production team about the recording processes. They are 'straight' performances, without post-production manipulation.

At first I found some of them a bit 'plummy' in the bass, but have been persuaded by the notes, which characterise us as 'conservative' listeners, and urge purchasers to play the CDs at a high volume for best results, as if we were sitting a few feet from the keyboard! That does work. I was reminded that long ago I once owned a rather superior Quad amplifier which, disconcertingly, had no volume control. The explanation, I learned, was that according to the makers, volume levels are set at the recording studio and are 'non-negotionable'! (One often gets contrary advice nowadays, e.g. with clavichord CDs, for which listeners are recommended to reduce listening levels.)

I've never been one for listening comparatively and choosing "the best". Good recordings, and these are all such, take you in, and away from critical listening at the same time to other sounds and performances in your 'brain-bank'. My favourites include lesser known pianists, e.g. Schnabel in Beethoven, Olga Tverskaya & Schuchter in Schubert, Pachmann & Movarek in Chopin - to give some idea of the range - and Barbara Nissmann lives comfortably in this company, and that of those who are currently lionised for their 'brilliance'. She puts the music and the articulation of its harmonic basis first, with flights of virtuosity often understated as filligree decoration, and a clear sense of the musical world each composer lived in.

Barbara Nissmann's website speaks for itself, with many reviews reprinted complete (not just the favourable quotes often used for publicity) and there are too complete pieces from the CDs to listen to on line.

Read also: Prokofiev 50th Anniversary Conference (Prokofiev in America) http://www.musicalpointers.co.uk/articles/generaltopics/Prokofiev&America.htm

A typical review:
Prokofiev pianism to perfection
Although this was the first recording of the complete Prokofiev sonatas (undertaken in 1989), it is still for me the yardstick by which all subsequent versions are measured. Although this unjustly underrated United States pianist is a renowned Prokofiev expert she wears her scholarship joyously with an exuberance and spontaneity that lunges out of the speakers. The angularity, muscularity and acrobatics that embody Prokofiev's unpredictability are conveyed with such wit and bravura flourish. Her high sensitivity to shaping of lyrical line shows Barbara Nissman having a love affair with the most fecund melodist of the twentieth century. It's this very enthusiasm and close identity with the core of Prokofiev's style that set these performances alight. A bouquet for Pierian Recording Society in archiving this classic set of CDs and saving them permanently from the deletions axe. Ian Dando, music critic New Zealand Listener.

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Rachmaninoff by Nissman

Volume I: The Complete Preludes
Prelude in C Sharp Minor, Op. 3, No. 2 / Ten Preludes, Op. 23 / Thirteen Preludes, Op.32
Barbara Nissman, piano

Pierian 0028

Volume II: Complete Etudes-Tableaux plus Transcriptions
Eight Études-tableaux, Op.33 / Nine Études-tableaux, Op.33 / "Liebeslied" / "Flight of the Bumble Bee" / "Vocalise"
Barbara Nissman, piano
Pierian 0031

Barbara Nissman continues her traversal of the romantic giants. Rachmaninoff literally, with his enormous hands and superhuman stretches (Cyril Smith). Those hold no terrors for Nissman, who sounds completely comfortable and at home with this composer, as with the others in her ongoing Pierian series.

There is no feeling that she is trying to impress with her virtuosity; she lives in the music of her chosen composers year by year, and conveys what Rachmaninoff himself hoped, that his music would express what is in his heart when composing, be it "love or bitterness; sadness or religion".

The "encores" are well chosen, with Rachmaninoff's arrangements of Kriesler and Rimsky (the Bumble Bee is in stinging mode !) and the Vocalise sounding as mellifluous on piano in Earl Wild's transcription as from any wordless voice.

I have found Barbara Nissman a good companion with whom to revisit her favourite composers. She confirmed my impression that her latest, recorded at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, sound particularly felicitous, attributing that to her new producer, Bill Purse. As always with Pierian, there is no compression and high level listening is recommended.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Recital Favourites, Volumes 1 & 2
and Franz Liszt The Elvis of the Keyboard

Barbara Nissman's latest Pierian CDs of Recital Favourites, Volumes 1 & 2 - fulfilling 'a need to leave a "legacy" and record all these pieces while the fingers still work' (with "Gaspard" to follow soon) are wide ranging and enjoyable.

The fingers still "work fine", she's been pleased to assure us, and the performances draw upon long experience - 'With so many young musicians focusing on the notes rather than what actually lies behind them, Barbara Nissman gives an object lesson in musical semantics. Time and time again she finds a way of subtly articulating important musical events in a way that illuminates the music that surrounds them' [International Piano].


Perhaps even more important than any one of Barbara Nissman's CDs is her DVD, a teaching film made on a small budget, essential viewing for everyone who knows Barbara Nissman only through her CDs.

Whilst she talks and plays, Barbara enthuses a group of small children who sit enraptured at her feet, and the device of having an actor in period costume to represent Liszt is completely successful.


Peter Grahame Woolf




Recital Favourites, Volume 3
Bach / Beethoven / Liszt

1. Prelude and Fugue, for organ in A minor "The Great," BWV 543
2. Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major ("Hammerklavier"), Op. 106
3. Three Transcendental Etudes
7. Piano Pieces, Op. 4: Suggestion diabolique

Volume 4
Bach : Italian Concerto in F major, BWV 971
Ravel, Maurice : Sonatine for Piano
Liszt : Sonata for Piano in B minor, S 178
Scriabinr : Pieces (3), Op. 2: Etudes (12), Op. 8:
Nocturne for left hand alone), Op. 9/2
Balikirev : Islamey (Fantasie Orientale)

For a scholar/pianist of a certain age, Barbara Nissman's is a remarkably assured and convincing "Hammerklavier", with a big Bach organ transcription, some Liszt and Prokofiev pieces to complete one of Barbara's typical programmes. Here is an example of how there is no substitute for experience and what sounds, deceptively, as instinctive understanding of idiom.

Recorded in a sympathetic university environment, with a team she has worked with over long years now, this is a fine "present to herself" reflecting a well spent life in music. How many pianists, of any age, would number Beethoven's Op 106 amongst their "recital favourites"? It is a grand, sweeping account of this huge masterwork, swift, heartfelt in the slow movement, shirking nothing...

I approached it with a little trepidation, having recently immersed myself in the complete Beethoven sonatas on early pianos in Malcolm Bilson's ground-breaking recordings with colleagues upon pianos like those Beethoven would have known, but the spell was quickly recreated on Steinway D 555000 at Duquesne University.

Volume 4 really does collect many people's favourites on a generous 74 mins disc,, and Nissman despatches them all with panache and easy-sounding mastery, and a feeling (certainly true) that she has lived with this music for many a year. She describes herself, unashamedly, as a pianist who "plays everything in the grand Romantic style", and she is one of many who believe that "if Beethoven had had our modern day Steinway, he would have felt the same way".

Definitely two more to add to your collection, if there is room on your shelves, especially if you've had a chance to hear Barbara Nissman in recital? This is building up to a connoisseur's collection; apparently she has already recorded most of the projected 10 volumes of her "Favourites".

I am sorry that Barbara has not been back to England since our sole meeting when she was lecturing at London University and afterwards gave me her Prokofiev box; a happy beginning to a fruitful e/friendship, celebrated on this page.


Favourites Vol 5 - 2010

Volume 5 of Barbara Nissman's favourites has been received ahead of general release and it is superb. Magisterial performances of a fine selection of this great pianist's recital favourites.

Major Chopin and Prokofiev's largest sonata, plus reminders of her other interests, with no hint of compromise from ageing or fallible fingers and ear. The Lees Odyssey 1 (a piece for John Ogdon) is a marker for an American composer of my generation who died earlier this year, one to explore.

Collectively, Nissman's discography will be collectors' items for many a long year, with her links to the romantic pianism of the past, but recorded to best standards of the 2000s.

A tremendous achievement, one which should be far better known and celebrated wherever the 19th-20th piano repertoire is enjoyed.

The sequence is well judged, with suitable pauses and good continuity of one work after another, different though their idioms be.

There is a possibility that Barbara Nissman may play in London later this year - an occasion not to be missed.

Perhaps even more important than any one of Barbara Nissman's CDs is her DVD of a teaching film made on a small budget, essential viewing for everyone who knows Barbara Nissman only through her CDs.

Whilst she talks and plays, Barbara enthuses a group of small children who sit enraptured at her feet, and the device of having an actor in period costume to represent Liszt is completely successful.

Recommended and hopefully there will be more DVDs (and short videos on YouTube) to follow.




Latest news: Barbara did make it to London in 2010, playing mainly Prokfiev at South Bank Centre in a memorial concert for her friend and colleague Noëlle Mann, curator of the Prokofiev Archive at London University.

Her next big venture is a major Ginastera project at Michigan University, planned for December 2011, with his Three Piano Concertos and including Two Premieres. She promises me that there will be at least one more DVD.

Peter Grahame Woolf




© Peter Grahame Woolf