By the time pianist Barbara Nissman finished her March 13 recital in Salem College's Hanes Auditorium, she had made a convincing case for her thesis that, aside from his own individual voice, Sergei Prokofiev was a natural extension of the aesthetics of Franz Liszt. When she was a student at the University of Michigan, her professor was Gyorgy Sandor (a student of Bartók), a specialist in the music of both Bartók and Prokofiev. He made highly esteemed complete recordings of both composers' complete piano music. She has taken up her mentor's mission and added Alberto Ginastera to the mix.
In the absence of program notes, Nissman prefaced each piece on the program with brief comments that drew attention to stylistic features, relationships between composers, and her approach to the works. Prokofiev as the storyteller was a theme of the opening work, "Tales of an Old Grandmother," Op. 31, the composer's first work written on American soil, in 1918. These episodes are "characterized by a discreet lyricism" according to Claude Samuel in Prokofiev; he adds that here, "a simple melody, rather like a folksong, is sustained by a transparent harmony." More than once, I could liken the effect to a Mussorgsky-like Russian tale passed through the prism of Liszt's late Romantic piano technique. The overall effect was simply lovely.
Nissman described the outer two movements of the first of Prokofiev's three "War Sonatas" (No. 6, Op. 82) as the columns containing the "meat" of the work, with the brief witty second and romantic third movements serving as cleansing sorbets. There was no lack of fiery pianism in the huge waves of sound and dense texture generated, nor was there any lack of poetry in the delicate quiet passages. In the most complex passages, she excelled in attending to underlying melodic lines, aspects often neglected by many pianists. In Sergei Prokofiev, Harlow Robinson says that "in the Sixth Sonata, Prokofiev is again the enfant terrible, but he has lost his optimistic naivete and gained maturity and passion." Nissman said that the rubric "War Sonatas" refers to all three having been begun in 1939, the year the composer returned to Russia from his self-imposed exile in the West.
Rippling arpeggios reflected Franz Liszt's tribute to Chopin's Nocturnes in his lovely and gentle "Consolation" No. 3 in D flat that followed intermission. Nissman said that Liszt had a much higher regard for Chopin than his Polish friend had for him. The performance was a fine display of her ability to weave a delicate line and paint with subtle tone color.
The Triangle and Triad have not lacked for performances of Liszt's monumental Sonata in B Minor. I remember the huge waves of sound wrestled from a long suffering piano in Duke's Page Auditorium by Lazar Berman. Many others have gotten through it but failed to convince that there was any depth behind a façade of virtuosity. Then came the unforgettable achievement of Luiz Carlos de Moura Castro at a Baldwin Auditorium recital: he was able to subordinate the definable sections into a larger superstructure. Add Nissman's own view to this short list of wholly successful presentations. She succeeded in her stated goal to "make its form lucid on two different levels" while expressing her view that the core Romantic theme is " the Spiritual Journey... from Life to Death."
Her two short encores came from Alberto Ginastera - the gentle "Dance of the Sad Maiden" and the fiery "Dance of the Clever Cowboy," a piece as taxing as any Hungarian Rhapsody by Liszt! It is too bad that the conjunction of spring break at nearby Wake Forest University and the NC School of Arts kept the audience so small for such a fine musician.
Two websites are worth exploring: http://www.prokofiev.org/interviews/nissman.html [inactive 4/05] has a fascinating two part interview with the pianist while Nissman's own site, at http://home.earthlink.net/~bniss/biography.htm, features her recordings and her two books covering Bartók and Prokofiev from a performer's point of view.