Nelson Freire: Pianist of Self-Effacing Gentility

United StatesUnited States Bach, Brahms, Prokofiev, Granados, Chopin: Nelson Freire (piano), Alice Tully Hall, New York, 20.11.13 (DA)

Bach/Siloti: Organ Prelude in G Minor
Bach/Hess: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring
Brahms: Klavierstücke, Op.119
Prokofiev: Visions fugitives (selections)
Granados: ‘Quejas, o La maja y el ruisenor,’ from Goyescas
Chopin: Ballade in F Minor, Op.52; Berceuse in D Flat Major, Op.57; Polonaise in A Flat Major, Op.53


Even approaching seventy years old Nelson Freire remains a vastly underrated pianist. Essentially a hero in Brazil – and the expat community here in New York – his subtlety, restraint, and nobility of interpretation are remnants of an earlier age. Rarely tempted to play with anything but the most genteel, almost apologetic emotionality, his pianism is elegant, refined, and never less than thoughtful.

So too, on this evidence, is his programming. Harkening back to recitals that encompassed the entire tradition, albeit updating Bach for more Romantic tastes, this concert was an outstanding, if bashful, success.

It began with a transcription of a Bach prelude (BWV 535) from Alexander Siloti, enhanced by Freire by a languid, fluttering sadness impossible on the organ. There was a fulsome depth of tone here that continued even into the delicate poise of Myra Hess’s arrangement of ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’ (from the cantata, BWV 147), played with an unhurried gentility that bordered on patrician.

Freire’s translucent soundworld is particularly appropriate for late Brahms, and the Op.119 set found him at his most enlightening. Shards of ice opened the B Minor Intermezzo, melted by a hushed wariness and a control of colour matched, in the E Minor Intermezzo, by an attention to Brahms’s layering of unsteady rhythms. The sweet sadness of that latter piece’s remembrance of a Viennese waltz shared a smile with the heavy legato of the C Minor third piece (usually far more buoyant than here). The final Rhapsody, inflected with Hungarian touches but hardly dominated by them, would have seemed almost celebratory had Freire’s flimsy staccato in its quiet sections not pointed to the discontent underneath, and its conclusion was firm only in its ambiguities.

Late Brahms so often points the way to Schoenberg – or ought to – but with Freire it led to some of the more refined of Prokofiev’s brief Visions fugitives. Sparky at times but never abrupt, in this Prokofiev Freire again demonstrated his talent for evocation of imagery even with the briefest of material. Allusion is hardly necessary in Granados’s achingly beautiful ‘Quejas, o La maja y el ruisenor,’ a complaint for nightingale and lady, played with as much authority here as Alicia de Larrocha in any of her recordings, and with a sense of exploration, a working out of emotions even as they were being expressed.

Chopin had the second half to himself. The F Minor Ballade was notable above all for its dignified strength, never deployed beyond the call, always veiled. Harmony united with shape of phrase in the most satisfying of ways, and both contributed to the tragic arc of the piece. The late Berceuse was if anything even more rarified, striking a balance between regret and gentle bliss in an unending, extraordinary bel canto line. And then the A Flat Polonaise, devoid of the ferocity so many pianists focus on but enlivened by a double-dotted snap that few would think of, and a cumulative power even fewer could achieve. A levitating Nocturne (Op.27/2), the first of two encores, was merely one more meditation on the sublime.

David Allen

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