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Pianist Nersessian: Uncommonly Satisfying


Pavel Nersessian (file photo)
Pavel Nersessian (file photo)

Staggeringly stunning? Stunningly staggering? Not quite the right descriptors for the 49-year-old Russian pianist and new BU professor Pavel Nersessian, who—relaxed, confident, moment-enjoying, attentive both to the composer’s work and to his own work in its behalf—gave a recital Friday night in Weston at the River School Conservatory’s annual Chopin Symposium that was uncommonly satisfying. In fact it was by some measure the most satisfying varied-program piano recital I’ve been to in I don’t know how long.

Why was this, and how? What’s ‘satisfying’? It wasn’t my mood, I think. From the opening measures of the four Hindemith Tanzstücke (1920), I felt relieved, then pleased to be carried along in this musical artist’s happy grip. Why don’t we hear this set more often: jazzy, angular, nonconsonant, but sensible and easy to follow. Nersessian was ever alert to Hindemith’s Haydnesque offbeat-as-normal procedures, and the rendition was perfection: crisp, modulated, gladhearted, with Pantomime, IV, rollicking big and loud. What a start.

In an age of steroidal technique, Nersessian’s playing is not necessarily what you’d call effortless, but I hasten to add that this diminutive, charming, almost slight musician has chops aplenty: major powers, accurate marksmanship, ultralight touch with many shades and colors of quiet, and instrument-bouncing (at least an inch) dynamic range.

There was more than all that; quickly evident were a certain aplomb, easy competence taken for granted by him and us, dash, plus a degree of casual seriousness or serious casualness to it all. The Schubert A-major sonata D.664, affected and swoony in the best senses, overflowed with delicacies of small righthand delays, with complete naturalness. The opening song sang simply (it harks forward to Sammy Fain’s famous ‘Secret Love’ from Calamity Jane), the Andante felt like a breakup note on birchbark (even though Nersessian did not fully get Schubert’s bossa-nova-like rhythms), and the Allegro revealed hushed inner voices, pearly and radiant. Best of all: when was the last time you heard any pianist end a known piece with a final cadence of ff two chords that for some charming reason he decided to play softly? It wasn’t arch, it was a sweet, slight surprise. Nersessian aims to please, on his own terms.

Liszt’s retelling of Schubert’s “Ständchen” lied was so rich that I was sure Puccini and Mascagni must’ve studied it later in the century. “Erlkönig” erupted but remained the harrowing, harrying mess it usually is, congested, hammering, the horse’s octaves again causing knots in the stomach.

Nersessian does the hard unheralded keyboard labor with total apparent poise. His touch is notably lighter and more careful than many. He playfully believes in his extremes of volume and drama, and portrays that drama unselfconsciously. The Liszt Sonata, which I’ve never witnessed in a small recital hall, unexpectedly featured many almost inaudible notes (from the start), and almost overwhelming rock ’n’ roll later on. It was great fun, and at the same time a soul-disturbing engagement, to experience Liszt’s huge spectacle, twinkling dissonances, many rolled chords. That fugue was fast. Afterward, the crowd met his high energy.

The encores complied with less is better, thankfully: short Tchaikovsky and Chopin. Rather fagged they sounded, understandably. No matter. I’d go out of my way to hear Pavel Nersessian again in this very program, or in anything else. Even if you’re not a piano maven, or scorekeeper of the rising hotshots and the maturer unknowns, be certain to hear this guy if you get the opportunity.

David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 45 years, with special interest in the keyboard.


17 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. This was an exceptional piano recital, although perhaps no surprise to anyone who’s checked out Pavel Nersessian’s videos on youtube. I also think the reviewer repeatedly hits the nail on the head. What a delight indeed are the Hindemith Tanzstücke, and how expertly rendered! Of the Schubert: the pianist’s approach to the sonata did feel affected – perhaps a shade much for me – but was a marvel of mood and rhythmic control; the Ständchen was all sublimity; and Erlkönig was every bit as harrowing as Mr. Moran described, and knotty for all.

    On to the Liszt: I remain undecided whether Mr. Nersessian intended the opening notes of descent to be as soft as they were, or simply decided on the spot to double down on an accident of touch and continue with it later on. In any case, it didn’t work for me at all (quite a few of these notes were completely inaudible from where I sat in this intimate setting). But the pianist swept one away thereafter with his maniacally fervid performance. Oh yeah, that fugue was crazy fast! Against this diabolical intensity, Liszt’s lyrical entreaties became all the more tender, limpid, and angelic. An original and memorable performance.

    Lovely though the encores were, it was the Chopin nocturne in A flat, Op 32: 2, that satisfied least this night – an irony in that the concert was presented under the auspices of the Rivers School Conservatory’s commendable Chopin Symposium. Alas, as fleet and lilting as Nersessian played the A of the ABA, the middle section simply galloped by too quickly to impart the kind of existential angst with which Chopin freighted it (for comparison, one might seek out Maurizio Pollini’s approach to this piece, and to most of the others).

    One last matter, concerning the final paragraph of this worthy review: we all know that ‘fagged’ means ‘exhausted’, but its use here has two tiny strikes against it: neither Moran, BMInt nor the Rivers School are British as far as I know; and the word itself is the homonym of an unwelcome slur. Sounding it here struck me something like a missed note at the end of a good performance: not necessarily a big deal, but wrong enough to elicit a flinch.

    Comment by nimitta — June 30, 2014 at 2:23 pm

  2. Thanks much for this feedback. One never knows about one’s sudden enthusiasms. Don’t agreed about ‘fagged’ in this case, but no matter.

    >> the Liszt: I remain undecided whether Mr. Nersessian intended the opening notes of descent to be as soft as they were, or simply decided on the spot to double down on an accident of touch and continue with it later on.

    Interesting point and interestingly put, as from a performer’s viewpoint. Charles Rosen once reminded me that listeners (he did not have to add reviewers!) typically forget that live playing is always and only what is and was possible *in that moment*, meaning what was doable.

    Regardless of overgauging touch, for some impressive Nersessian softness control listen to

    It ain’t Horowitz (and this is like a different piece)

    and I post this as not at all a Horowitz fan (the publisher brought it to my attention).

    I often wonder if you and SamW (e.g.) are at selected piano-related events. David Dubal on Sunday afternoon at Rivers gave his Chopin lec-dem with his usual ancient recordings, if you know his tutorial approach, which were just headshaking in their freedom and taffypull rubatos, but always to deep effects. Intense, many of them, to say the least. Horowitz Polonaise on DVD: riveting, frightening. Also Sirota, Jonas, Rach, Friedman, Cortot. Some of these are pianists I had never heard, others I had never heard play really probingly or thoughtfully before, to the contrary. Dubal pronounced Pollini, Rubinstein, Kappell often prosaic, insufficiently poetic, which was refreshing to hear. He is sharp and opinionated, but immensely, wide-rangingy learned; I would recommend his books to anyone, having listened to him on-air for many decades. He also can be a crank, a classical Clint Eastwood. About Chopin, another composer I have never fully or easily gotten (nor played), he pointed out among many other things that his undomesticated side is widely unappreciated, he is not really programmatic, and that a chief characteristic of Chopin is irritation. I ventured about Dubal’s Golden Age selections, ‘also: pressed, urgent?’ and he instantly concurred. Often Slavic in affect, he noted. And the worst-played of all composers. A most instructive afternoon.

    Comment by David Moran — July 1, 2014 at 10:25 pm

  3. A rich offering, David – thank you. It was good to have another chance to hear Pavel Nersessian in Ständchen, although I believe we heard even better. As for Horowitz’s take: quite magical, as if issuing from some parallel universe. What subtlety with the pedals!

    I also appreciate Charles Rosen’s reminder – truer words were never spoken.

    I’m sorry I missed David Dubal on Sunday, not only to hear those venerable recordings but his always provocative and deeply informed pronouncements (Chopin not programmatic…worst-played [de Pachmann, right?]…Slavic affect among Golden Age pianists…intriguing!). I can relate to Dubal’s acute observation about Chopin and irritation. I hear it bringing forth the pearls in many unlikely genres – for example, waltzes, impromptus, preludes, and plenty of nocturnes, including the one I mentioned above, where emotional irruptions unsettle the evening calm.

    I wonder if Dubal’s talk was recorded – will check with the RSC.

    Comment by nimitta — July 2, 2014 at 6:53 pm

  4. Even when I miss a recital, as I did this one, I try to read about them, as there’s always opportunities for hearing interesting insights and making new discoveries. I’m sorry I missed this one, both from the discussion and from the fine performance on youtube. I agree that the difference between the two performances is amazing. I much prefer Nersessian’s, though in Horowitz’s defense he seems to be playing it purely as lieder, with one hand playing accompaniment and the other singing, whereas Nersessian plays it as a piano piece.

    The point made by nimitta and Rosen is indeed a fascinating one. I know I’ve often made that mistake myself, and have occasionally caught myself in the act of judging as an artistic choice what may have been a mere matter of necessity, and had to say to myself “he didn’t necessarily do that because he wanted to,” or something similar. In the case of the Liszt Sonata, though, it’s hard to be sure, because I think the opening is supposed to sound like that. I just checked out the score on IMSLP, and the opening is marked p sotto voce, whereas the end is marked ppp. I interpret this as Liszt saying, “the ending can be played more quietly than the beginning, because by then, they will be listening.” Sotto voce suggests something being overheard rather than heard, so maybe when the audience complains that it wasn’t clear, the pianist is just following instructions.

    I would have loved to hear a lecture by Dubal. I didn’t know he was still active. I know him mostly from the Art of the Piano, which I have spent many hours with, to the extent that I sometimes have to be careful not to let him prejudice me too much. He knows an enormous amount and his observations are frequently to the point, but I have some strong disagreements with him; I think he is completely wrong about Pollini, for example. However having interesting people to disagree with is one of the great pleasures in life.

    Comment by SamW — July 2, 2014 at 8:57 pm

  5. By the way, for a third opinion on Ständchen, try this:

    As it happens, I recently attended a performance of the Liszt Sonata in a small recital hall, Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, by Khatia Buniatishvili. It began quietly, almost offhanded, before the audience had quite finished applauding her entrance, and finished very, very, quietly, before an audience that was silent, stunned, and amazed. Here is the entire program:

    Liszt: Sonata in B Minor
    Ravel: La valse
    Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor
    Stravinsky: Three Movements from Pétrouchka

    The woman has no fear.

    Comment by SamW — July 2, 2014 at 9:30 pm

  6. SW, thanks, and agree about Liszt’s instructions, as he was careful in such things. I much like your distinction b/w the two y/t takes and must think for the next week whether I fully concur in it.

    I too did not know DD was active, though as I say have listened to his peculiar show and voice from the start, I think. In person he would seriously modulate his tune re Pollini, and was not all that sharp about Pollini’s picky notiness in the first place; indeed DD was highly flexible and modulated for someone also so opinionated. I mean, he played versions of the Chopin concertos for us and afterward, when I mentioned ‘but they are not nearly enough irritated and indeed sound to some like tuneful junk’, he immediately agreed they sure were, being hardly at the level of all of the disturbing (irritated, Slavic) f-minor stuff he had been offering prior. (I did not add that MSteinberg omitted the Chopin from his piano concertos book, precisely for reasons of quality.)

    Thanks much for Buniatishvili clip, as far as it goes (truncated); I had heard raves about her, other than, different from, the usual raves, and this is confirming to an extent. She as well makes this Liszt-Schubert look easy, and maybe it is: both Rosen and Alex Ross have written that there are a very few really top-tier works that actually are possible for amateurs (e.g. me) to hack their way through and achieve musically quite satisfactory results.

    I fear her ‘brave’ program is altogether the norm now, immense, difficult, but just too much. Dubal touched on this too, with dismay, given our consumer and collector society. He really does not ever want to hear all of the Chopin Preludes (or any of the other sets) at once, not at all, to the contrary. I concur in this recoil and would add the last three Schubert or Beethoven sonatas, all the Bartok quartets (which I just heard, brilliantly, but seriously no!), and much more.

    Comment by David Moran — July 2, 2014 at 11:55 pm

  7. I have some sympathy for what you and Dubal express about extreme programming – I read about the Borromeo’s 6-quartet extravaganza with dismay, though the same program spread over two evenings with the Takács Quartet was purest joy. There certainly has been a growing tendency for young pianists to build programs from a relatively small set of works of extreme virtuosity, of which Buniatisvili’s program is a virtual catalogue. When I first heard the single-piano version of La Valse, about 5 years ago at the Gardner, it was so obscure that it did not appear on any of the several recordings I have of Ravel’s “complete” oeuvre for solo piano; I have heard it in performance at least twice in the last year.

    Nevertheless I cannot completely concur. I believe in moderation in all things, including moderation. It is possible for a musician of a certain temperament to thrive in this ferocious sea, and produce whole evenings of astonishment and wonder. One could accuse Buniatishvili at Carnegie Hall of following a strategy of Shock and Awe, but she wasn’t imposing her will on innocents; she was one of us, completely committed not just to the performance but to the music itself. It’s true that she prefers music that makes enormous demands, but I think that’s at least in part because she thinks the rewards are commensurate.

    On the subject of Dubal and Pollini, when someone accuses a musician of lacking poetry, I always want to demand an elaboration. Of what kind of poetry are they thinking ? Horace ? Dante ? Baudelaire ? If a musician lacks the qualities of Tennyson or Matthew Arnold, I have to say that’s all right with me. I have heard some pianists play Mozart’s piano music as if it was by Alexander Pope (Glenn Gould comes to mind), which I do not regard as a good thing, much as I love both Mozart and Alexander Pope.

    Comment by SamW — July 3, 2014 at 9:56 am

  8. DD was talking from the consumption point of view, I believe, and I fully agree it is preferable for my soul to cope with only one of the late Beethoven or Schubert sonatas at a given time, plus different other pieces, rather than all three. Or a recital with the Goldbergs and the Diabelli, or several Shostakovich quartets, or all of the Chopin Preludes. It’s a moral (spiritual, aesthetic, psychological) intake issue, not a virtuoso problem.

    As for poetry, this is willful. DD explains in the ‘Art of the Piano’ Pollini entry (278).

    Comment by David Moran — July 3, 2014 at 4:48 pm

  9. To Sam W.:
    It wasn’t “the same program [as the Borromeo] spread over two evenings with the Takacs.” It was the same quartets, juggled into 1,3,5 and 2,4,6, which isn’t the same program at all. What was lost was the chronological sense of development and change, which in the Bartok quartets is dramatic and riveting in its ‘arc.’ Would that they had done 1,2,3 on the first evening, and 4,5,6 on the second. Of course the concerts were sublimely performed, but something real and worthwhile was lost.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — July 3, 2014 at 5:46 pm

  10. Great point. All of the Bartok quartets in sequence was an amazingly illuminating experience to sit through, that’s for sure. And now having railed about modern OCD collecting impulses, and presenters’ wish to satisfy same, let me again propose that some eminent quartet perform, over a long program, late Beethoven as composed: 132, 130 + 133, and 131.

    Comment by David Moran — July 3, 2014 at 7:02 pm

  11. “On the subject of Dubal and Pollini, when someone accuses a musician of lacking poetry, I always want to demand an elaboration. Of what kind of poetry are they thinking?”

    What SamW said.

    And Alan.

    And David re 132/130/133/131.

    Fascinating discussion all round…

    Comment by nimitta — July 5, 2014 at 8:18 am

  12. Poetry is an art, not an essence. It is the things that are made, not a quality that inheres in them and can be extracted from them and applied to anything, from music to numbers to baseball, that we wish to infuse with an aura of mysterious coherence. Though they begin in metaphor, derived from the actual experience of poetry, these applications quickly become facile and meaningless. Recently the New York Times printed a story on the Poetry of Downsizing. When people make use of this metaphor, they never seem to have actual examples of real poetry in mind, and would probably consider most of them some what lacking, excessively literal, being made of words and all.

    I am familiar with what Dubal has to say about Pollini in The Art of The Piano; those are the comments with which I was disagreeing. He is generous and insightful in many ways, but he keeps returning to what he finds lacking, which (though he does not use the word in the book) seems to be poetry. When Pollini is accused of lacking poetry, I think what is meant is that his musical voice provides no commentary, does not suggest what the music is about, or how it is affecting him. People think he does not care because he does not say that he cares. They interpret this as coldness and distance, but I interpret it as reticence, renunciation, devotion. Pollini has relinquished a personal claim on the music in order to surrender to it. He is continuously driving forward, searching. He does not look back to tell us what he has found in the music because he is looking forward, into it.

    Criticisms of Pollini remind me ones that are commonly made of scientists, that they lose sight of the beauty and magic of the world in their tireless effort to determine the laws by which it operates. Comparisons of the crabbed astronomer huddled over his sums with wide-eyed children looking up at the night sky are always popular, but they are misleading; it is good to be one of the children, but it is the astronomer who shows the greatest measure of devotion, renouncing all transient rewards and laboring even to the point of blindness to discover the principles that govern the motions of the stars.

    You like youtube clips; here is one of Pollini the Astronomer. If this is lacking in poetry, then so is most of the poetry I know.

    Comment by SamW — July 6, 2014 at 5:53 pm

  13. I stand at the dock and plead guilty as charged for using the term poetic when I really mean affecting. Yet in mitigation I have to say that what we mean about a poetic piano performance has more to do with how the playing compares to a fine reading out loud of poetry- the performance of poetry. I might indeed want to hear Rzewski in the manner of an Ezra Pound reading or a late Schubert sonata played with the affect achieve by Claude Rains in “Enoch Arden. (and please lay of Tennyson)

    Olivier reads the bard’s prose with great poetry…

    Sam W. has an article in him that BMInt would like to publish. Please expand it.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — July 6, 2014 at 6:22 pm

  14. >> … interpret it as reticence, renunciation, devotion. Pollini has relinquished a personal claim on the music in order to surrender to it. He is continuously driving forward, searching. He does not look back to tell us what he has found in the music because he is looking forward, into it.

    This approaches Russell-Shermanspeak: I like that sort of thing fine, but it’s not particularly, or specifically, meaningful or helpful, reading as kinda poetic actually, and in any case seems odd from someone who objects to the term poetic.

    Also finding that linked Pollini ending of opus 110 not compelling at all: among other things it lacks, to my ear, rhythmic strength and forward propulsion plus adequate clang. (Do you know Kovacevich round 1 of this movement?) For another, it’s a rare performance of this ending that is not pretty well-done, often extremely so (Schepkin recently, e.g.); even Rosen, whose playing is invariably described as colorless, plays it powerfully and perhaps poetically.

    Lots of poetry lacks poetry, for sure.

    Comment by David Moran — July 6, 2014 at 9:35 pm

  15. I don’t object to having my language called poetic, which I regard as high praise (whether deserved or not), but I do object to the implication that that makes it unspecific and meaningless, which is a complete misrepresentation of the nature of poetry. The language of poetry is more precise than ordinary language, not less so. It is not a means of disguising meaning but of discovering it. If it does this by devious methods and peculiar stratagems, it is because meaning is elusive and not easily approached. In this sense poetry is like music as described by Felix Mendelssohn: “the thoughts which are expressed to me by music I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.”

    I do not at all object to the term poetic, or to discussion of the similarities and differences between poetry and music, both in the ways they work and the uses we make of them, which I find a fascinating subject. I object only to use of the term in a vapid or disparaging sense that diminishes the art.

    I won’t defend Pollini any further. I think he makes his own case sufficiently well.

    Comment by SamW — July 6, 2014 at 11:08 pm

  16. SamW: “When Pollini is accused of lacking poetry, I think what is meant is that his musical voice provides no commentary, does not suggest what the music is about, or how it is affecting him. People think he does not care because he does not say that he cares. They interpret this as coldness and distance, but I interpret it as reticence, renunciation, devotion. Pollini has relinquished a personal claim on the music in order to surrender to it. He is continuously driving forward, searching. He does not look back to tell us what he has found in the music because he is looking forward, into it.”

    To my mind, this is the single most insightful description of Pollini’s art that I’ve ever read.

    As for that visionary Op 110 on youtube: I haven’t wept so during a musical performance since the last time I heard him play the Hammerklavier in concert. Thanks for sharing it.

    Regarding the replies: what interesting ears we all have! When I was younger I used to marvel at how differently two people could hear the same performance. Now I marvel at the fact that no two people can hear the same performance.

    Comment by nimitta — July 6, 2014 at 11:25 pm

  17. Thanks, nimitta. I envy your having heard him play the Hammerklavier. I hope I have that chance someday.

    Comment by SamW — July 7, 2014 at 6:12 pm

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