For “no rational reason,” Pianist Nada felt compelled to record the complete solo piano music of Johannes Brahms, a task she recently accomplished and discussed in detail with Ken Meltzer (Fanfare 45:3). Previously, she’d described the almost spiritual nature of her connection to the composer to Jacqueline Kharouf—“I Felt He Was There” (Fanfare 42:4)—pondered the multiple dimensions of Brahms’s musical and psychological personae, and revealed the reasons behind her decision to jettison her last name. Now, having seemingly exhausted Brahms’s piano-only catalog, she’s found an oft neglected but fertile trove of music to explore as a soloist—piano transcriptions of the symphonies, the first of which is now available as a download at pianistnada.com/product/johannes-brahms-symphony-no-1-in-c-minor-op-68/.
At the conclusion of your interview with Ken Meltzer, you tantalized us with the prospect of a forthcoming project related to the music of Brahms without further explanation. Were you referring to your solo piano performance of his First Symphony?
Yes, but I hadn’t finalized the details, as I didn’t have a recording company at the time. I had a choice between two companies and I ended up working with one of them because it agreed to do both of my projects, reissuing some of my recordings of the solo Brahms, such as the Hungarian Dances and, still to come, the Etudes. For the time being these will be digital-only releases, but maybe in the future if I decide to record two or three or even all four symphonies, perhaps there will be an issue of a complete set on CD.
What sparked your interest in recording a solo piano version of a Brahms symphony?
I’ll tell you the story, but first I’d like to go back to the organ chorales that I transcribed for the piano. I love the organ, as did Brahms himself—if I wasn’t a pianist I’d have been an organist—and I was fascinated by the fact that the chorales were his last works. And so that lead me to the symphonies…. I tell you [laughs lightly], I don’t think I ever talked about it … at the time that I was already recording the solo piano music I had this dream of one day being able to conduct a symphony.
So did you say to yourself, since I can’t become a conductor overnight and hire an orchestra, I’ll do the next best thing?
Now we come to reality. During the pandemic there was not much to do, so I decided, “Hey, I’m going to look into this dream of mine and play the symphonies on the piano” [laughs heartily]. And I had already, a while ago, ordered both the orchestral and piano scores, so I had the music. We were all stuck at home so it was perfect timing.
Whose transcription did you chose?
Let me open my booklet because I don’t remember his name. I think his first name is Otto … let’s see, Otto Singer. Singer had also done all the Beethoven symphonies; he was an important musician of the time of Brahms. So Brahms probably had known of him, but we are not sure that Brahms saw that first transcription. Nor do we know if he saw the transcriptions of the Third and the Fourth Symphonies, but it’s almost certain he did, as he would have had to approve anything intended for publication. In the booklet I write, “We assume that Brahms was probably aware of the transcriptions of his symphonies and we know that he revised the Second Symphony, done by another contemporary musician.”
You know, Brahms did an arrangement for four hands of the First Symphony. In my notes to myself I write, “Brahms himself did the piano reduction for four hands of the First Symphony. This was a very important moment for him. He worked almost fourteen years before presenting the Symphony to the world. He knew the pressure he was under, in short taking the succession from Beethoven; he waited for the right time, for the time when he felt that he mastered the orchestral language. He had the sound he wanted and the mastery of composition, consequently the premiere in 1876 was a success and he was recognized then as a giant of his time.”
Did you play Singer’s transcription as given or did you edit it to suit your own conception?
To answer your question, I explain in the liner notes that, “I have lightly revised Singer’s writing for some corrections of clarity of texture.” I then move on to speak about the symphony from a broader perspective: “The First Symphony is an incredible work of immense scope and proportions. You know it’s probably the longest of all. I have chosen to play the repeat in the first movement. It is not present in any of the recordings I am familiar with. The interesting point is that when the repeat is observed, it brings the length of the first movement equal to that of the fourth movement. The Symphony is a majestic journey from a tormented atmosphere in C Minor to a complete grandiose reconciliation in C Major.”
Interestingly, a similar repeat exists in the Second Symphony and almost every conductor in every recording I’ve heard does that repeat. But for some reason with the First Symphony, in none of the recordings I know, including Karajan, Celibidache (which is my favorite), Giulini, etc, did anyone take that first movement repeat.
I wonder why?
I will tell you, the possibility is that it makes the symphony very long and it lasts almost an hour. For performance purposes, I would imagine that may be the reason why those conductors are not doing it, but in a recording they still could do it, and yet I don’t find it anywhere.
Once you’ve finished with the symphonies, would you turn your attention to any of his other orchestral works—the Academic Festival Overture, for example?
If I go into more transcriptions of his work right now I would look into his organ music. I don’t think the overtures—I love the Tragic Overture too—I don’t think those would work well on the piano—the Academic Festival even less because there Brahms uses so many instruments to make it so brilliant, so I don’t think it would be interesting. However, he’d already transcribed the Haydn Variations for two pianos. So this is something that, if I can find a second pianist, I would love to do. Actually, I do have a project in mind to do some more Brahms, which is unusual but I cannot talk about it yet; it would take two pianos, and involve some of his works which are not known plus transcriptions. And, maybe if I have the courage, one day I would transcribe some of his organ pieces or some Bach organ pieces for the piano because I love Bach and not enough of his work has been transcribed for the piano, but that’s a lot of work and I don’t know when I would have time to do it [laughs].
Besides this new project, my dream would be to do a lot of chamber music of Brahms—you know, during the pandemic chamber music was out of the question, so the symphonies came to me first [laughs]. Chamber music is my next goal. I also hope to eventually have time to focus on my life story, as so many people have asked me to write about it. I’ve already written what I call the first chapter, which is all about Lebanon and my childhood there and the war, so we’ll see.
In previous interviews you’ve commented on Brahms’s symphonic style of writing for the piano. Now that you’re now tackling the real thing, so to speak, can you talk about some of the specific orchestral devices in the symphonies that you have to somehow evoke on your instrument?
There are certain things he uses for the first time that contemporary composers did not. For example, he uses octave glissandos many more times than other composers. Also, texturally it really gets very dense; you have to clarify all of that. It’s not decoration; it all has a meaning.
Orchestral transcriptions for the piano have the reputation of being difficult or awkward to play. Was that true in this case?
Awkward is a very good word for it. It’s hard to play. It’s very hard to play because you’re talking about reproducing the orchestral textures and multiple, simultaneous parts on a piano. There are several notes everywhere, all the time; it’s not pianistic whatsoever.
Besides writing about Brahms’s symphonic style you’ve also pointed out his penchant for polyphonic writing, something he indulges to an uncommon degree compared to his contemporaries.
That’s true, and in the transcription I have to have all the instruments in my fingers.
Before you experienced what you’ve referred to as “an epiphany” that unexpectedly plunged you headlong into the world of Brahms, had you played much of his music? Your website features a recording you made when quite young that includes his op. 116. With hindsight, would you say that was a premonition of things to come?
Funnily enough, I had no interest in Brahms at all at that time. The reason why this was on my first album was simply that the person who came up with the project was looking for something to pair with the Dukas Sonata, so he came up with Brahms, because of course Dukas is one of those French composers that was more German than French. And so it was a good match for the Brahms. I was young and the only time I played that piece was for the recording: I never performed it again in my life. So that’s how little Brahms I knew at the time. And the only other Brahms I had played—it’s also on my website—has tragic associations for me. It was scheduled for the first concert I gave with my trio while I was still a student at the Paris Conservatory, and my mom was killed in the war right at the moment I was preparing that concert. I could have been killed if I had gone home for the usual Easter holiday, but I cancelled at the last minute to stay in Paris and rehearse the two pieces on the program, the Brahms First Piano Trio and the Chausson Piano Trio. So this was the only other instance when I actually played Brahms in my life until I began recording the solo music.
How did your life with the piano begin? Did you grow up in a musical household?
No one was a musician in my family and we didn’t have a piano, but when I was a really young kid, three years old, I was apparently fascinated with the sounds of music and would dance around the room whenever my parents played recordings. And then I was given a type of toy piano and I was fascinated with it. I started begging for a piano even though I had never seen one in my life. And then one day they decided to go buy at the flea market an old upright from Germany, a big black upright with ivory keys—a beautiful old upright piano. And when it came home I couldn’t leave that keyboard. I was always stuck on it, playing the keys, so eventually they had to get me a teacher; and that’s the answer to “Why the piano?”
However, that first teacher was not good at all. I was almost 10 years old and they had to drive me to her house, but I only studied with her for three weeks because she would make me write music theory and I never touched the keyboard. I would come back home and I would start crying. So they thought that something is wrong with that teacher and we should get her another one. My second piano teacher was excellent, and after about a year I could play some Chopin waltzes, the Debussy Arabesques, and was already putting the pedal down and all of that. And then the war erupted, and during the war there was no piano teacher and no piano lessons. We all went to the mountains and there, after some time, an absolute miracle happened: My parents got me another piano as a gift for my birthday. Until then I had no keyboard up there whatsoever but I had books, two books that my teacher had started me on, Chopin Waltzes and the Bach Inventions, and when I got the piano I kept working and I learned everything by myself [laughing a bit]. That’s the story.
Did your family have a second home in the mountains?
Yes, like every Lebanese family at the time we had a home in Beirut, an apartment, and we had a home in the mountains.
You were very lucky under the circumstances to have somewhere to escape to.
Well, it’s lucky and not lucky. It’s just the way things are over there because you can’t stay in the city when it’s very warm in the summer, so you go up to the mountains [laughing].
I didn’t know that. When I think of Lebanon I don’t imagine it to be as oppressively hot as some other Middle Eastern countries.
No, no, it’s not oppressively hot. But you know, it used to be called a miracle of the Middle East, a really beautiful paradise. And even now, when the economic situation is horrible, it’s still a beautiful country, naturally beautiful. What the tourists and everyone who loves Lebanon love about it is you could go ski in the mountains and in the same day, in around a half-hour, you could drive down and bathe in the Mediterranean. So it’s a little paradise that is being taken advantage of by other powers around it.
Anyone reading a capsule description of your seven years alone with a piano might wonder how you were then able to audition successfully for the Paris Conservatory, where your teacher had studied and her teacher still taught. Did no one help you?
Well, actually there were some intermediate steps along the way. Before I went to the Paris Conservatory I arrived in France at Versailles, and that’s when I started to take piano lessons again with some teachers of the Versailles Conservatory, because to present to the Paris Conservatory you have to have a first prize from a regional conservatory.
I didn’t know that.
So Versailles was my regional conservatory, I ended up there because my family had connections. They had French friends who were in Versailles, so I stayed first with them for a while, and then I had my own little apartment and went to the Versailles Conservatory, and in one year I had won my first prize. And while I was in Versailles I was already preparing for the Paris Conservatory entrance exam with one of its teachers.
At that time it was very common for Lebanese families to flee to other countries to escape the war. Unfortunately for my family, when my mother, my brother, and I arrived in March of 1979 in France, they decided to return to Lebanon. And I decided, I begged them, to stay so that I could continue my piano studies. So I went back with them for the summer and then they sent me off to stay by myself in the fall so I could study at the lycée, and at the Versailles Conservatory. My father was planning to join us in France but he never arrived, so of course they all decided to go back, and the tragedy is that six years later my mom was killed.
There’s a quote on your website that powerfully communicates your artistic mission: “There is nothing more vital to me than to perform for others and share my love of music.” Have you always felt this way?
Well, I mean, part of why I feel that way is also part of my life. You know, when I arrived in the United States when I was younger, playing in public was a little bit more natural. You don’t come consciously to feel in this way because you just do it—you play, you want to perform. When I was at the Paris Conservatory I had a trio, we traveled, we performed a lot together, and it was always a beautiful experience. But when I arrived in the United States, instead of doing the usual things that many Europeans would do—they would stay in a big city like New York, or they would come to study in a university—because of the circumstances of my private life—and here I will say simply that because I got married to an American I remained here—being here led me to become a pioneer of the arts. And I tell you, if I hadn’t ended up living in Louisville, Kentucky, and in Indiana, I would have never known that Americans could be so poorly educated, and I never would have thought that so many have never seen a piano—like me when I was a kid, but it’s not because we were not educated. On the contrary, we were very well educated, we had classical music at home, we had all the music we wanted to listen to, and the only reason we didn’t have a piano was because my parents were not musicians. But when I arrived here and I started doing that pioneer work, putting a piano on a truck to bring it to rural communities that had never seen or heard one in person, I felt I had to do it because music was my life. I was music, and I was giving these people a chance to know it. And some of the most touching experiences I had at the time were when I was playing for those audiences.
It’s hard to believe that they’d never seen a piano.
No, when you go to rural Kentucky, and to similar places, those kids are totally unaware, or when you go to a prison—I played for prisoners. I will never forget an experience when I played the Beethoven 32 Variations for prisoners and I explained to them that this was a work—the 32 Variations are very easy to understand—in which there’s a short theme and there are 32 variations to come. So I explained to them simply what the system was, and those prisoners were following with me, they were putting number one, number two in the air, number three, number four—they were so excited to understand what was going on. And that is so touching. I still have the cups they gave me as a present, coffee cups that they made themselves. They modeled those coffee cups, and I still have two as a souvenir.
Anyway, it was experiences like this that led to my career taking an unusual path. I was left a lot by myself and shuttled back and forth all over the place because of my divorce, and I became a flight attendant. I did some modeling and acting to make money because the divorce left me with nothing. I wasn’t a pianist for a long time; I was struggling for a life, but then gradually I came back to the piano.
When I was a flight attendant, whenever we would arrive in a hotel and there was a piano I’d try to sit down and play what I could. When I had a friend who had a piano I would do the same, and eventually I had some help to start bringing the piano back into my life little by little. I did some teaching in New York schools that also put me closer to the piano, and eventually I had an apartment in which I could put my piano that was moved from Louisville to New York, and I stayed in New York for a few years and started playing again—not anything big, but just local things. And I even had a little piano series in New York in a women’s club, The Pen and Brush. Unfortunately, I then had to move out of New York because another bad story happened in my life, and after surviving cancer I had to escape.
I hope you’re all right now.
Yes. So I moved back to Louisville and my piano traveled with me, and this old man who had been a little bit like my dad during my years there welcomed me back in his home, the home that I escaped to when I was going through the divorce. I told an acquaintance of mine—she was a local pianist—I’m going to give myself five years to rebuild my technique. Because of course I hadn’t played regularly and I was really in poor shape. And I did! I did! It took me five years, and I started playing again more and more, and I created my Classical Hour radio show from scratch, and I was really a little bit like a bohemian of music.
I can see why people encourage you to write your life story.
Exactly. So now I’m trying to get back to concertizing and recording because I’d like to be recognized for my artistry, for what I can give as far as taking music through the notes to the world.