Out of Doors

Barbara Nissman (piano). Three Oranges Recordings 3OR-19 TT: 75:21.

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Lovely and lively. I've been a Barbara Nissman fan ever since her early recordings, which consisted mainly of Prokofiev and Ginastera. To some extent, writers still think of her as a Modern specialist, but she has a far greater repertoire. I regard her as one of the great interpreters of Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff, all of whose piano music she has explored, studied, and even written about. I'm always eager to hear what she will play, whatever it is, and she has produced first-class Brahms, Debussy, and Schubert. Indeed, I find her recording of the last two Schubert sonatas definitive. She combines the intellect and clarity of Rosalyn Tureck with the power of Richter and the excitement of Schnabel.

In addition to discs devoted to a single composer, she has also recorded recital programs of various composers, linked by some sort of theme. The theme here lies in the title. Of course, many composers have been inspired by nature, so there's no shortage of material directly connected (Grieg's "White Clouds," for example), but Nissman casts widely into mainly "night music," night-mood pieces, as well as an actual nocturne.

Béla Bartók enjoyed an annus mirabilis of masterpieces in 1926, when he produced the Piano Concerto No. 1, a few books of the Mikrokosmos, the Piano Sonata, and the suite Out of Doors. Up to this point, his writing for piano had been scant. However, a trip to Italy in 1925 stimulated an acquaintance with Italian Baroque keyboard composers, while Stravinsky's Concerto for Piano and Winds spurred him to write works featuring piano for his own use. This by no means accounts for all of his composing that year, including the Three Village Scenes. By this point, Bartók's style had changed from a post-Liszt Romanticism to something rather gritty -- for me his most dissonant period. The music -- lean, mean, and sharp -- achieves a power that carried him through the Thirties.

Out of Doors, unlike many "nature pieces," doesn't try to create an inner world -- the composer's response to nature -- but to portray the objects of nature itself. The opening "With Drums and Pipes," for example, evokes the sounds of rural Hungarian musicians playing -- you guessed it -- drums and pipes, while "Musiques nocturnes" gives you insect chirps, the feel of a crisp wind, bird calls, and a high, dark sky overhead.

The Schubert to me has not a lot to do with the theme of the program, but you don't really need an excuse to play these pieces. Schubert's publisher, not Schubert, gave them the title "Impromptus," which indicates an improvisatory character to the works. The more you listen to them, the less improvisatory they become. I don't believe the composer just sat down and tossed them off, especially the first, the longest and most complex of the set -- it comes close to the last three sonatas. To me, it also seems a condensed version of the "Great C-major" Symphony in its developmental procedures. However, publishers in the early nineteenth century had difficulty deciding what to call pieces not based on classical or baroque forms -- roughly the same problem literary publishers had with the rhapsodic poems of the early Romantics, so they lumped these pieces together as "odes," although most of the poems had little in common with the Classical Greek odes.

S.G.S.(May 2022)