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)
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.