Nelson Freire at Alice Tully Hall

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Nelson Freire

Nelson Freire

Nelson Freire, Piano
Lincoln Center Great Performers 2013/14
Alice Tully Hall, Starr Theater
November 20, 2013

J. S. Bach (transcr. Siloti 1924) – Organ Prelude in g minor (before 1705; rev. 1708-17)
J. S. Bach (transcr. Hess 1926) – Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (1723)
Brahms – Klavierstücke, Op. 119 (1893)
Prokofiev – Visions Fugitives (1915-17)
Granados – “Quejas, O la maja y el ruiseñor,” from Goyescas, o Los Majos Enamorados (1909-11)
Chopin – Ballade in f minor, Op. 52 (1852-43)
Chopin – Berceuse in D flat major, Op. 57 (1844)
Chopin – Polonaise in A Flat major, Op. 53 (1842-43)

Encores
Villa-Lobos – “A Lenda do Caboclo” (1920)
Chopin – Nocturne in D flat major, Op. 27, No. 2 (1835)

Readers of the Berkshire Review have read my grumblings about the standardized repertoire of the Boston Symphony concerts in the Music Shed at Tanglewood. With some miraculous exceptions, like Stéphane Denève’s Poulenc Stabat Mater this past summer, most of the programming comes from a narrow group of works which are the most securely seated in the canon. Hearing them year after year, the critic—or at least this critic—comes think of them as not the backbone of the repertory as much as its flab, its excess belly fat, as those unpleasant little ads say. (We shouldn’t forget that the predominance of this conservative programming—the concert hall as museum—is a post-war phenomenon.) The state of orchestral, chamber, and solo classics isn’t as dire as that of opera by any means, but the old nag only comes to life when someone special is riding her, someone who understands her ways—for example when Andris Poga, the new Assistant Conductor of the BSO, led them in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Another such epiphany occurred—purposefully—in the Hagen Quartet’s traversal of the Beethoven quartets last month. These were rediscoveries. There is another kind of performance that is equally powerful in reasserting the value of the classics—one which draws on the highest technical and interpretive standards as well as a deep respect for tradition. This was what Nelson Freire conjured for a keen audience of admirers and general concert-goers at Alice Tully Hall a few weeks ago. His selection of familiar Bach arrangements, Brahms, and Chopin, spiced with Granados and Prokofiev provided nothing but the richest spiritual nutrition.

Nelson Freire, who turned 69 just two days before his New York recital (and was accordingly showered with happy birthdays from some members of the audience), has enjoyed a very long career, beginning as a child prodigy first formed by pupils of pupils of Liszt in his native Brazil. He won the Rio de Janeiro International Piano Competition at the age of twelve with a performance of Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto. After that, he went to Vienna to study with Bruno Seidlhofer, like Eduard Steuermann an exponent of the Second Viennese School, who was also the teacher of Friedrich Gulda, one of the most innovative pianists of his generation, with his particular mastery of jazz, and Martha Argerich, one of our great originals as well. While the general thrust of Freire’s program was conservative, Prokofiev’s haunting Visions fugitives, which comes from one of the most fascinating phases of his development, when he was immersed in the Russian Silver Age and in contact with the mystical poet, Konstantin Balmont.

Seidlhofer once arranged Bach’s Art of Fugue for piano four hands. Perhaps that is the specific source for Freire’s enthusiasm for Bach transcriptions, apart from their distinguished place in the tradition of the piano. His reading of the g minor Prelude was rich and sonorous. Quite a lot of detail came through Freire’s ample but controlled pedalling. Freire’s skill in this is one of his particular excellences. Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring had all the deep, centered serenity of Myra Hess’s own performance as well as a resonance and coloristic range of his own.

The Brahms Klavierstücke, Op. 119 were sumptuous in tone and enriched with the pedal, but never generalized. The lines, differentiated in color, remained distinct. Freire’s approach dwelt in the intimate, direct voice of the composer, but adjusted for a full-sized concert grand in a large hall, as if Freire had been invited to a private recital Brahms gave at home or at a friend’s and he was telling us about the experience by demonstrating it. The pieces lost none of their subtle color and phrasing.

Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives comprise a set of twenty very brief mood studies based on Konstantin Balmont’s lines: “In every fugitive vision I see worlds/full of the changing play of rainbow hues.” Some of these are extremely delicate and impressionistic, while others are more dramatic characterizations of emotionally stirring experiences in life. Freire’s deeply involved playing, which continued the intimate quality of his Brahms, brought it home that his selection of the work came from a deep personal relationship with the music. In this he found a fine middle way between the exotic, occasionally strange states of mind expressed in the pieces and the virtuosity and feeling Prokofiev wanted to place at his own fingertips.

Granados’ “Quejas, O la maja y el ruiseñor,” tells a story and creates and atmosphere with an undisguised Romantic vocabulary. In it the young woman, Rosario, opens her heart to a wise nightingale which has come to visit here. In this Freire seemed more inclined towards the melodic and timbral beauty of the music rather than a dramatic narrative. It’s style asserted itself above all, as well as its Iberian character revealing itself for the first and only time in the evening. Contrary to the program, the intermission came after this piece, which continued the inward mood of the Brahms with more specific operatic referents, rather than before it, allowing the audience to immerse themselves in Chopin for the entire second half of the program. Mr. Freire kept to fairly restrained dynamics this far, rarely rising above mezzo forte, it seemed, and almost never above forte.

That changed in the second half, when Freire followed Chopin’s writing into grand climaxes. The Ballade in f minor, Op. 52 was an ideal place to start this transition, with its meditative introduction and beloved first theme, from which subsequent sections move through numerous mood shifts, both intense and subtle, into ardent and agitated excursions. Freire’s handling of the Ballade was, like the earlier works on the program, both resonant and detailed, showing a feeling for local color and line along with confidence in the grand gesture. Above all he showed a love for the sheer beauty of Chopin’s writing as well as a reverence for the tradition of playing Chopin (as opposed to a stylistic tradition), which came to the fore when the first theme returned with variations, which were most beautifully played. If the Chopin I heard at Tanglewood this past summer from Garrick Ohlsson was exploratory and revealing, Mr. Freire’s was more in the mode of the old-world aesthete—and there’s nothing wrong with that.

In the Berceuse in D flat major, Op. 57 the feeling of rapt appreciation, a passive state of mind (only for the audience, of course!) which seems harder and harder to attain in these interactive days, continued in the familiar, reflective lullaby. This comforting interlude led us into the heroic gestures of the Polonaise in A flat major, Op. 53, which only benefitted from Mr. Freire’s luxurious tone and monumental climaxes, all held together by a sense of movement and urgency.

Mr. Freire followed the scheduled program with a calling card from his native Brazil in Villa-Lobos’ “A Lenda do Caboclo” (an intimate character study like other works on the program, with its wistful tune) and a return to the Chopin mainstream in the Nocturne in D flat major, Op. 27, No. 2, as exquisitely shaped and colored as its predecessors.

It is not a common occurrence to spend such a pleasurable, even exalted hour with these old friends. Most younger musicians would avoid this kind of programming, and only a great master can bring it off, which in the case of Nelson Freire is a naturally understood truth, as much as the quality of the music in this memorable recital. His attention to the familiar could only refresh our love for these old friends.

Michael Miller

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

2 Comments

  1. Christopher Greenleaf

    In casting his review of Nelson Freire’s intriguing November Tully Hall recital in so personal a tone, Michael Miller tosses down a welcome gauntlet. That challenge might read,

    When is music criticism successful, relevant, interesting?

    One could, and perhaps should, argue that, when effective, such writing addresses those equipped to derive a full measure of meaning from it. It also ought to inform us more deeply than simple statements of fact can, and profer the possibility of widening our perspectives in the context of the performance being discussed. Views put forward, when patently backed by knowledge, preferably presented without finger wagging, are a delight to read. If they go so far as to settle the moment memorably within the fabric of contemporary and historical music making, the review can truly be said to meet expectations.

    This review does just that. It invites one to pursue research and listening in furtherance of what Nelson Freire’s program was about. For me, the review also unleashed a strong wish-to-dickens-I’d-been-there feeling.

    But all that’s not the purpose of this response to Mr. Miller’s fine piece. I must preface the comments below by saying what makes me take them to the keyboard. Throughout my career – I’m a location classical recording engineer – I have worked with historical keyboard instruments of all stripes, from originals in Colmar and Gdansk to their excellent modern copies here and around. The challenge and satisfaction central to my work emerge from the at times quite complex process of getting to know the voice and character of a piano, cembalo, or organ. The core of the encounter is to listen in far enough to have a pretty fair hint of what, at the hands of a performer who gets what an instrument is really about, it truly has to say. Strangely enough, the easiest part of this is discarding the potential coloration imposed by the decades or centuries since its maker finished voicing the piano (harpsichord, organ). The very hardest part is sidestepping my own expectations and preconceptions of piano (etc.) sound to extend my ear deeply into whatever hints of what the builder was after have survived. Exactly the same applies to listening to good replicas with a view to understanding what their creators drew from one or many historic models. I base my work on these perceptions, with whatever degree of success or otherwise.

    This puts forward the no doubt alarming notion that today’s pianos and so on have superb predecessors, and that the timbral, expressive, and technical nature of ancestor instruments is both satisfying and, well, valid. I have favorite contemporary or near-modern pianos, of course. Many of their makers’ names begin with “B”, two of them with “S”, one with “C”, and one with “E”. Another is “M&H”. What I adore in them is their remarkable diversity, the strikingly individual characteristics each model and individual piano exhibits, and the very different demands national and maker traits of voicing, action, and tonal “dialect” make on a pianist’s technical and interpretive equipment.

    Mr. Miller’s article, as published, credits a “Piano” without specifying the maker. This is standard practice in our time. After all, there’s but one surviving Rolls-Royce. (Or is it BMW, Mercedes, Lamborghini…God forbid, Cadillac? I forget which.) By custom today, we don’t differentiate between 280cm grands from Hamburg and 9-foot ones from Astoria, though we know there’s a difference. The builder’s name makes it into print now and again if the writer considers the character of the piano to be part of what the performer has to say, and how it comes across. If the piano is by one of the two or three modern also-rans, this might make it into print, out of mild curiosity at a departure from concert norms. A critic’s first encounter with the colorful layerings and dynamic transparency of a Steinway-Fabbrini, for instance, do usually make it onto the page. Otherwise, we confer anonymity on this corner of the music making, in marked contrast to the eras in which the nature of the piano as often as not figured prominently in the write-up.

    My plea is that we once more appreciate the range and breadth of piano sound possible on stage, in recordings, and in our private encounters, rather than quietly accept the day’s blandly undifferentiated tonal standard. We gain a great deal from first accepting, then coming to require a greater vocabulary of the pianistic soundscape than has become customary. In my own case, recording superb ancestor instruments in successive seasons of Music from the Frederick Collection, Ashburnham, MA, has changed me for good. You can’t unhear the sound of a model of piano on which a Beethovem, Fauré, Mendeslssohn, Haydn, Debussy, Chopin first conceived the scores we know so very well today. It’s not about their sound being definitive or authoritatively authentic. Rather, it’s that they point out arresting expressive and interpretive possibilities, surprisingly many of which can be successfully applied to bringing this music to life in the soundscape of today.

    As an example: However gorgeously played and recorded today, you may not care for Chopin on the 1840s Pleyels on which he wrote and played. But I guarantee that you’ll not soon forget the experience.

    I’m not interested in bringing about a sea change in how critics write about the piano. My hope is that writers, with performers and music lovers, demand a good deal more of the piano, and of what it can be at its remarkable best, than we’ve come to settle for. That’s all.

    1. The EditorThe Editor

      Thank you so much for your kind remarks, Christopher.

      Your views on music, keyboard instruments, and many other topics are enlightened, but in this case you are telepathic. When writing this review, I had a whole paragraph in my mind about the sound—more in respect to the Starr Auditorium than the piano, which was a New York Steinway, if I remember correctly…Now why isn’t the sound graven in my mind, as sometimes it is?

      The piano sound that evening was rich and uniform, with a top register that was mellow up to mezzo forte and brilliant, even occasionally harsh, when Mr. Freire was producing a big sound in the Chopin. It was in general pleasing, but also puzzling. I wondered if this was the sound of a fine piano played by a great pianist or the sound of said fine piano and great pianist through an excellent but not entirely accurate audio system, e.g. older Meridians (as opposed to Quads electostatics or true monitor designs). The edge of the sound (and I don’t mean the attack) was missing and the overtones seemed homogenized. I took this in as a problem related to the hall rather than the instrument. (I’m not saying that electronic enhancement is being used there. That would surprise me, although the publicity materials state that the hall sound is adjustable, and I have no idea how that is done.)

      The acoustics of Starr, the more I go there, seem stranger and stranger to me. When I attended some of the opening concerts there, I was impressed with the presence and balance of the sound in 19th century chamber and vocal music. An Emanuel Ax recital sounded very good indeed in those early days, although I think I can remember some of the characteristics which now trouble me back then. The acoustic is at its worst for period instrument groups, especially Les Arts Florissants, who sound almost muffled there. (A few weeks ago, I found myself much happier with Juilliard 415, who cultivate a rougher, more robust style of playing. Besides, I was sitting—for the first time—in the balcony.) It’s natural enough to grow more critical with time, especially with what’s on one’s own side of the fence. I’ve also heard some extremely negative comments from younger musicians, including pianists, who have played at Tully. The older artists tend to be diplomatic, when I ask them about it.

      I decided not to go into this problem in my review of Mr. Freire’s recital and to discuss it in depth another time. Under the circumstances, I didn’t think I could say more than I did about the piano and its sound. It would be different if the concert had been at Carnegie or Jordan. However, it was clear that neither the hall nor the instrument were entirely worthy of Nelson Freire.
      My impression is that variations between individual instruments, the acoustics of the space in which they are played, and the ability or willingness of the artist to work with a technician on the problems count for more than the particular manufacturer. There is a Bösendorfer at Williams College which sounds awful in the place where it is stored and played. My theory is that the instrument may be a lemon, that it reacts badly to the Western New England climate, and is a poor match for the hall, which is not a purpose-built concert venue.

      Then there are the listener’s expectations—or preconceptions. My listening habits were formed in the 1960s and 1970s, an especially bad period for New York Steinway, because of rising production costs and economic pressures which affected both luxury manufacturers and the arts. My piano teacher had two American Steinways in his music room, a rebuilt 1928 model and another made in the 1960s. I was always thrilled when I got to play the older one. The sound and touch of the later instrument was terribly constricted in comparison. American halls and pianists began to turn to Hamburg Steinways, Bösendorfers, and Bechsteins for relief, and some entrepreneurs made some outstanding pianos on a bespoke basis, like the Mark Allen concert grand. Fortunately Steinway turned itself around. The company was sold by the family to CBS in 1972 and then to a group of investors in 1985, who started an independent company and corrected the shortcomings. I am still a bit surprised by
      the much improved instrument New York has been making since then.

      I entirely agree with you that we should be more concerned with the instruments, their periods of origin, and the playing styles related to those factors. Unfortunately it is easy enough to get into territory that remains unknown to anyone who can’t have a frank conversation with the technician or the pianist. In the modern piano, with its homogeneous voicing, much has been lost since the day of the fortepiano. We can be thankful that people are studying earlier keyboard instruments and are building them today. Just this past summer, an especially unsatisfactory Schubert recital by Paul Lewis, in which he cloaked the sonorities of Steinway he played in Ozawa Hall under a blanket of pedalling, made me think of how the better pianists today (not even the great ones) preserve some consciousness of the different registers of historical pianos and their musical function in the way they handle the less differentiated instruments of today. That is clear in a random group that come to mind: Schnabel, Cortot, Brendel, Curzon, Rubenstein, both Serkins, Sherman, Hamelin, and so forth—all great in this case. To create a blurred orchestral effect in Schubert is to disguise the music. After hearing Lewis, I was trying to think of Romantic and modern composers of piano music which was intended for, or benefitted from such a treatment, and I couldn’t think of any—not Chopin or Liszt, for sure, and not Debussy, except in second-rate hands.

      The history of the piano has been incorporated into technique and style through generations of teachers, but today, between builders like Regier, museums like the Frederick, influences like Malcom Bilson, and events like the deeply enlightening ones you organize at BEMF, pianists, even if they stay with the contemporary piano, have more ways to learn the history of the instrument in all its variety and complexity. Our mutual friend, Stephen Porter, is an example of a musician who is taking full advantage of the opportunity, playing both modern and historical instruments superbly.

      Thank you for conveying the important message “that writers, with performers and music lovers, [should] demand a good deal more of the piano, and of what it can be at its remarkable best, than we’ve come to settle for.”

      Now let us lament the recent demise of Pleyel!

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