Classical review: Pianist Craig Nies plays Bach and Mozart his way

Craig Nies presented a delightful period-instrument concert on Friday night at the Blair School of Music. Of course, with Nies, that period would be about 1931 at Carnegie Hall, and the instrument would be a modern Steinway concert grand, as performed by no less an executant than Sergei Rachmaninoff.

niesPut another way, Nies proved to be a Romantic pianist with a capital “R.” A Blair School of Music professor, Nies presented a program that was about as far removed from the current historic authenticity craze in classical music as you can get.

He played Bach on a modern concert grand piano and used pedal for extra nuance and color. What’s more, he played a composite Bach suite of his own design, mixing movements from three different partitas. Along similar lines, he performed a Mozart sonata without dutifully observing any of the repeat signs. And he concluded with a Romantic-flavored Rachmaninoff piano transcription of a Fritz Kreisler violin piece.

For sure, Nies’ interpretations lacked the literalism found in many historically authentic performances. Yet Nies also avoided the common pitfalls associated with the authentic movement, namely, of sounding dry, impersonal and austere. Nies’ performance was just the opposite of that. He was far more interested in what the works of Bach, Mozart and Chopin meant to him personally than in what these composers may (or may not) have meant texturally in their notes.

So does that mean Nies’ style of playing is inauthentic? Perhaps. But it’s worth noting that Nies’ performances sounded, to my ear at least, a lot more like the early-20th-century recordings of Rachmaninoff, Hofmann and Paderewski than what we usually hear from either modern or historic instrument performers. And those golden age pianists were much more connected to the old performance traditions than anyone today.

During his brief pre-performance remarks, Nies said he was inspired to play a hybrid partita after recently performing Bach’s complete Well-Tempered Clavier. He loved the way Book I’s dark, five-voice fugue in C-sharp minor contrasted with the bright D-major prelude that follows it. So his composite partita similarly featured a progression from dark to bright keys, from a sense of tension to relaxation.

Nies opened with the big Toccata from the Partita No. 6 in E minor, playing this music with nuance, color and considerable expression. He followed with a graceful rendition of the Allemande from the Partita No. 4 in D major. His performance of the Courante from the Partita No. 5 in G major was remarkable for its perfect polish and clarity. He rounded out the suite with the E-minor Sarabande, G major Tempo di Minuetta and E-minor Gigue. Nies played that Gigue, by the way, with foot-stomping energy that was certainly entertaining, if not authentic.

Ravel is one of Nies’ favorite composers, so it was no surprise to see the pianist having so much fun with the composer’s Noble and Sentimental Waltzes.  He was at his best in slow sections, when his playing seemed especially dreamy and lyrical. He tossed off the virtuoso sections with easy elegance.

Nies’ tempos in the outer movement of Mozart’s big Sonata in B-flat major, K. 333, were on the fast side, and as a result his marksmanship was not always perfect. But his playing was always breathtaking. And I’ll take breathtaking over perfection any day of the week. His interpretation of the Adagio was as spontaneous and emotional as a bel canto aria.

The highlight of the concert was Nies’ performance of Chopin’s big (yeah, Nies played only big repertoire on Friday) Ballade No. 4 in F minor. He performed the lyrical sections with the dewy sensitivity of a Chopin nocturne, and he dispatched the dramatic music with brio and fire. He concluded with an intensely personal and lyrical rendition of the Rachmaninoff-Kreisler Liebesleid.

At the end of the evening, Nies won a rousing standing ovation. He did not play an encore. And that struck me as the least authentic part of his entire program.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.