Pianist Nada and the Message of Brahms


Pianist Nada has performed and recorded all of Brahms’s works for solo piano. On each of her five Brahms albums, all recorded under the MEII Enterprises label—Nada in Hamburg with Johannes Brahms (2016); Vienna: Brahms & Nada (2017); Nada Meets Johannes Brahms (2017); Capriccios & Intermezzos: Nada and Brahms (2018); Johannes Brahms Part 1, Part II, and Part III (2020)—Nada also included a selection from Brahms’s Etudes. Recently, Nada collected and re-released these six etudes, which Brahms wrote after themes by Schubert, Bach, Chopin, and Weber, as a digital-only album. This isn’t Nada’s first digital album. In 2019, she released a digital-only album of her transcriptions of Brahms’s 11 organ chorales. But for this latest digital album, Nada and I wanted to share a more personal and in-depth interview, focusing both on her past and her on-going relationship with Brahms. (I also give my review of Nada’s digital album, Johannes Brahms: Etudes for the Piano, at the end of this article.)

When I asked Nada why she chose Brahms, she mentioned the challenges inherent to his music. Speaking about Brahms, Nada often returned to the strength of his character as something that she most admired about him. She wrote about his strength in an article for International Piano (published July, 2019) entitled “Brahms the Progressive.” In beginning her article, she explains: “It takes an epiphany for Brahms’s music to reveal its magic, profound clarity and strong emotional impact.” For Nada, Brahms is and will always remain a challenge precisely because that epiphany begins with his incredible demands on the pianist: “I find it to be satisfying to play the music of Brahms: it’s rich, it’s wonderful, it feels pianistically good to unload everything I have learned about the piano in his music,” she told me at the start of our interview. “Everyone I’ve ever learned about, every other composer, and about the piano in general, I find in his music. So it’s more complete than any other music, for that reason. Brahms is like a complete image of everything I have learned about the piano.” Much of her life has been defined by challenge and destruction, the sort of catastrophes that would cripple most people, stifle their aspirations, and indefinitely halt the future. But perhaps it is better to explain these events as a series of prerequisites, with the ultimate goal to perform and embody the message of Brahms.

Aside from their love of challenge and the piano, Brahms and Nada do not share much in common. They lived in wildly different times—Brahms at the height of nineteenth-century Romanticism, Nada in the post-modernism of the millennium’s second decade. Brahms never married; Nada is divorced. Brahms lived and worked mostly in Vienna; Nada has traveled widely, fled war, and immigrated to the United States. And yet they both suffered from cancer and were (or are) superb walkers. They both shared a romantic notion that music should be accessible to everyone, including low-income students and people with limited means or limited exposure to the arts.

A piano, by definition, is a percussive instrument, full of the highs and lows of struck and depressed strings. It is an instrument that begets so much sound, demands so much attention, and for many musicians (pianists and non-pianists alike) it is often an introduction to the world of musical performance. Brahms’s output for the instrument is staggering: 3 sonatas, 4 ballades, 16 waltzes, 2 rhapsodies, 3 intermezzi, 21 Hungarian Dances, sarabandes, gigues, variations on themes from Schumann, Paganini, Bach, Carl Maria von Weber, Handel and other sources, and many other songs, etudes, and pieces. For Brahms, the piano was a vehicle for expressing his own inner turmoil, as well as the means for sonic exploration. In her article, Nada detailed the technical challenges particular to the piano music of Brahms—main melodies accompanied by subsequent melodic lines that are then interwoven with harmony, often between the two hands (also known as counterpoint); triplets and duplets coupled in a rhythm again split between the left and right hands; quick jumps to distant notes; glissandi in octaves (a glissando is a rapid slide up or down the octave, or 8-note scale)—all of which contributed to Brahms’s enduring legacy for creating the symphonic sound of the piano.

For Nada, her first musical memories are tied to her desire to play the instrument, although music was only a small part of her family’s life in Lebanon. Pianist Nada, who prefers to be known by her brand name, was born in Beirut at about the time of the Lebanese civil war. She remembered her family’s collection of classical music records—an LP of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, an album of Mozart—and the need to play piano. “It seemed like I had to,” she told me during our first interview (“I Felt He Was Here: An Interview with Pianist Nada on Her Fourth Brahms Recording,” published in the March/April 2019 issue of Fanfare). I first spoke with her by phone in December 2018, and then we spoke again almost exactly two years later, in December of 2020. “But no one was a pianist in my family. I was a kid. I asked, I begged for a keyboard.” Her parents bought her an upright piano from the flea market, and she had lessons for about a year before the war.

Nada’s mother died in the spring of 1986. A shell exploded in her home, in her mother’s bedroom, and Nada’s mother died instantly. Nada had just spoken to her mother days before because they had been making plans for Easter. “Beirut was closed at the time. It was not a good time to arrive but people were still traveling to Beirut,” she told me. I had asked Nada about how her parents understood her calling to the piano. When she learned of her mother’s death, Nada was already in Paris, studying piano at the Paris Conservatory. “We had to take the boat, I would have been arriving by boat from Cypress that morning. Tuesday night, the week of Easter, I called my mom from my apartment in Paris with my boyfriend. I said, ‘Mom, we’re really not ready for our concert. It’s supposed to happen in two weeks. I think I will skip, I will not come.’ And I skipped, I did not fly the next day as I was supposed to, to Beirut.” On Friday morning, her boyfriend and his mother came to Nada’s apartment to tell her that her mother had died.

For weeks, Nada could not speak or eat. Her father came to visit her and he would not tell her anything about what had happened, even though he had been home when his wife was killed, “He never spoke one word about her. The only thing he told me when he arrived was, ‘Okay, she’s not here any more. We have to go on.’ That’s it.” Nada’s father died in 2013; Nada learned the details of her mother’s death nearly 10 years after it had happened, by speaking to other relatives who had remained in Lebanon.

She formed a trio with her boyfriend and performed in concerts throughout Paris. The trio traveled to Canada and studied at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. But after returning to Paris, she parted from her boyfriend and went to the United States, where she studied with a piano master at Indiana University. She had only planned to stay one year, she still had her apartment in Paris, but then she met someone else. “I met someone over the summer, just at the turning point where I was staying three more months for some special courses in the summer at IU and I was going to go back to France. And suddenly something else changes. I met someone who became my husband. So I decided I’ll stay and work longer with this master at IU, and the rest is history.” She fell in love and married and moved permanently to Indiana, where her husband was studying. Later she and her husband moved to Kentucky.

But again, she suffered another kind of destruction: divorce. “American divorce broke my life and I never recovered,” she explained. Nada told me she was left almost with nothing and that for a time she had to give up playing piano. For years, she worked as a flight attendant, sometimes finding a piano in a hotel lobby to play, but she did not have her own instrument. “I am an immigrant with no family support at all, and yet I am in one of the most expensive professions in the world, because being a concert pianist is one of the most expensive, my instrument is one of the most expensive. Everything was like against me trying to keep on playing the piano,” she said. “There are some moments where I thought I would never play the piano again because I was put in such a life situation after my divorce, for example, where I had no piano and I had to make a living.”

There is a certain strength in giving up a part of yourself, of giving something of yourself away for free, or at least free from expectation of a reciprocal compensation. When I asked Nada about her work in nonprofits in the Louisville area, she told me: “Now, I want to share my love of Brahms’s music with more people.” Prior to her divorce, Nada and her husband created a nonprofit together. As part of the outreach for that organization, Nada also created a radio series called The Classical Hour. And although she is not sure now if that nonprofit still exists, the need for educating people about classical music is still a huge motivation for her life and work. “Most of my performing here, even now, is about outreach,” she explained, “creating new audiences, educating people about music because, when I was married, I didn’t realize in this country how needed [music outreach] is. People don’t know music here.” Nada developed and still serves on the board of directors of her own nonprofit, Sundays Love Music for Everyone, Inc., which was a part of arts activities in Louisville, until her radio show ran out of funding in 2020. She scaled back Sundays Love Music for Everyone, Inc. because she wanted to concertize more, but with the pandemic other plans were also halted indefinitely. Nada wants to create a Brahms Society that is primarily focused on performances, but would also offer interactive lectures and masterclasses. “I will tell you honestly that playing for small communities of people here who don’t know much—of course they love music, I’ve played for so many audiences—sometimes I get this amazing comment where someone tells me, ‘Oh, I didn’t know how Brahms was so beautiful—can I buy your CD?’ and I’m like Oh, yes! I made it as an artist! It’s like one of the most fulfilling comments from an audience member. That’s when you see, you feel like you’ve done your job, you’ve done what you’re supposed to be doing. You’ve created a new love into this person who’s now going to know more music and know more music about Brahms.”

Although Brahms left an enduring legacy in his vast body of work, his biography includes some mysteries about his character and some tantalizing rumors of his alleged infatuation with Clara Schumann. Clara was the wife of composer Robert Schumann and an accomplished pianist and composer in her own right. Brahms spent some time with the Schumanns and even helped the family after Robert’s death in 1856. Brahms and Clara enjoyed a deep and unique friendship foreshadowed by Robert’s everlasting memory. They remained close and frequently corresponded until her death. Towards the end of his life, Brahms wrote 11 preludes for the organ. This was in 1896, the year Clara died, the year he was diagnosed with cancer. He died the following year, April 3, 1897, at age 64.

The chorales hold special meaning for Nada, who has also been interested in playing the organ. Playing directly from organ scores, Nada transcribed Brahms’s organ preludes in almost minimalist and contemplative phrases. In these pieces, Brahms is perhaps his most vulnerable, the music asking for answers beyond the vehicle of the organ, beyond the quiet poetry of the religious texts that Brahms utilizes to preface these pieces. When I asked Nada about the vulnerability of these preludes, she immediately agreed: “The chorales are full of questions. What did we do in life that is meaningful or not meaningful? Because he had those questions at the end of his life, also about his music: What is my music worth? Will it stay? Will it not stay? Where is music going? Yes, I definitely think from all the repertoire, the chorales are probably where he shows most of his vulnerability.” She also mentioned that some of his Lieder (or German songs, typically performed by solo voice and piano) demonstrate a preoccupation with death and questioning: “They are very dark. The Lieder and other choral works, like the motets, are clues to his heart. For example, in the motet op. 74 for choir that asks why, ‘Warum,’ we hear the questions and vulnerability of the human behind the music.” And it is this, I think, which is the message of Brahms’s music. Maybe that message is not so much a statement, but an attempt at understanding—the searching and asking why and the mysteriousness of the human heart. Nada, as the performer of these organ transcriptions, which are unique to her (she has not published her transcriptions and interprets the organ music through a different instrument), fully embraces that message. Her performance is otherworldly, as though we have been transported to some inner corner of Brahms’s mind. There is peace and calm, light and breath, but a longing to known what is unknowable.

On her final Brahms album in the series, Nada organized her album notes almost as a kind of correspondence. We spoke about this at length in our first interview—the performer acting as a medium of sorts for the composer—and so, there often exists in music a special sort of conversation between performer and composer. The “emotional and conceptual universe” (as Nada put it) of Brahms’s music is more fluid, more readily adaptable to expressions of the performer’s own life and experiences. I wanted to ask Nada if she believed that she shared some of Brahms’s same physical and mental strength, but as I listened to her story, I understood that some questions don’t deserve to be asked. Some questions must only exist as they are and will never be truly answered with any spoken explanation. Without all these delays and dilemmas, tests and failures, minor successes, would Nada be as brilliant, as interesting, as resilient as she is now? In many ways the piano saved her life—perhaps literally—and despite all the moments and events that seemed determined to pull her away forever, she returned. She is still here.

On December 20, 2020, in the middle of a sleepy afternoon, Pianist Nada sat at a piano in a small recording studio and gave an intimate performance for a group of remote listeners. She was a slender but sturdy figure, dressed in dark slacks, a red shirt, her short hair tied back in a ponytail. She walked quickly to the piano and sat and spoke briefly about the pieces she had prepared to play—Gabriel Fauré’s Barcarolle No. 3 in G♭ Major and Franz Schubert’s Fantasie in C Major, “Der Wanderer.” We waited—about 10 or 12 of us—sitting far apart in different rooms and cities and time zones. Briefly, in that shared moment in time, I felt both connected and achingly separated from the sort of setting Nada encouraged us to imagine—a salon performance, some small, warmly lit room filled with an enormous black piano, our chairs, our bodies collectively holding a beat in time as the music of Fauré and Schubert filled all the spaces that remained between us. As I listened, I thought of Nada walking in the snow near her home outside Louisville, taking pictures of wayward and darkening hills, coming back inside to her piano, to Brahms, to stacks of sheet music and organ books. I imagined her as host to the brilliant and far-reaching Brahms Society, designing programs, coordinating with guest artists, chatting with groups of avid listeners. I thought of her as one person made less solitary because of her chosen instrument. But above all, I imagined her finding strength in the composers and the works that still inspire her, even now, giving small concerts against the backdrop of a pandemic.

BRAHMS Etudes: No. 1 in f (after Chopin, op. 25/3); No. 2 in C (after C. M. von Weber’s Rondo, op. 24); No. 3 in g (after Presto from Bach’s Sonata for Solo Violin No. 1); No. 4 in g (after Presto from Bach’s Sonata for Solo Violin No. 1); No. 5 in d for the Left Hand (after Chaconne from Bach’s Partita for Solo Violin No. 2); No. 6 in E♭ for the Left Hand (after Schubert’s Impromptu, op. 90/2 (D 899)) • Pianist Nada (pn) • 4TAY 4073 (Download: 37:15) Reviewed from a WAV download: 44.1 kHz/16-bit

In each of these etudes, Brahms incorporates familiar flavors and thematic sensibilities of several composers that, like him, were interested in the lyrical capacity of the piano. This includes the sweeping rhythm and lyrical luminosity of Chopin; the contrapuntal lines and quite romantic syncopation of Carl Maria von Weber; Bach’s exponentially expansive themes from his Violin Sonata and chaconne; as well as the circular patterning of Schubert’s Impromptu. Nada’s fingerwork—especially in the blisteringly fast pace of Etude No. 3, and the etudes for left hand, Nos. 5 and 6—is absolutely precise and exudes a wonderful juxtaposition between the growing rhythmic demands and lyrical thread of the etudes. Each of these etudes seem briefly to inhabit a kind of what-if position—i.e., what if Brahms composed like Chopin or Bach?—but in any case, we also hear that these etudes are distinctly Brahmsian.

In the way that Nada plays, with the utmost care for each note, the consistency of tone and approach to the instrument, these etudes do not feel like studies or exercises. She is a stalwart for the historical context of these pieces—not only the original pieces that inspired Brahms, but the moments in Brahms’s own life and works when he wrote each etude—and that background knowledge informs her playing. Of the two variations on Bach’s Presto, my favorite must be Etude No. 4, which is so interestingly similar to No. 3, but seems to increase the space between the two hands and to allow the lyrical arc to reach higher, further leaping and interweaving Bach’s already complex lines into more pianistic shapes. Etude No. 4 reminds me somewhat of Bach’s Inventions, constantly finding new threads to unspool and braid. Etude No. 5, arranged for left hand alone, in particular offers Nada the opportunity to express her incredible skill, her stamina, and the magnitude of her energy, as well as her capacity for continually keeping the music fresh and interesting. Playing this etude at a little over 14 minutes long, Nada performs No. 5 quite quickly (compared to some other recording times I found on YouTube) and yet she never seems to waver—on the contrary, she conveys nuance, adjusts to dynamic changes, and brings the etude full circle in following the Chaconne theme.

It is really delightful to hear all of these etudes together in one place, to hear the connections and conversations Brahms must have had with these etudes. Nada brings herself into the conversation in some respect. She performs with the guidance of Brahms, her ultimate challenger and inspiration, but her performance is also fortified by her deep appreciation for the artistry of Brahms’s romantic and lyrical organization. Complete your Nada recordings with this digital-only release of Brahms’s Etudes.

Copyright © 2023 by Fanfare Inc.