United Kingdom Beethoven, Debussy, Rachmaninov, Chopin: Nelson Freire (piano) Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 19.5.2014 (RB)
Beethoven – Andante favori WoO.57
Sonata in C minor Op 111
Debussy – Les collines d’Anacapri, No. 5 from Preludes Book 1
La soirée dans Grenade from Estampes
Poissons d’or No. 3 from Images Set 2
Rachmaninov – Preludes in B Minor and G sharp Minor Op 32
Chopin – Ballade No. 4 in F minor Op 52
Berceuse in D Flat Op 57
Polonaise in A Flat Op 53
Nelson Freire does not play in London anything like often enough so this was a rare chance to hear the great Brazilian virtuoso. Many commentators, including this one, regard Freire as one of the world’s greatest living pianists and he was on superlative form for this recital: it was a real privilege to listen to musicianship of this calibre.
Freire kicked off with Beethoven’s Andante favori which unfolded with an unaffected simplicity and charm. I was struck by the tonal beauty of the opening, the delightful characterisation of the thematic material and the silky smoothness of the phrasing. We moved from middle- to late-period Beethoven with the composer’s final piano sonata – one of the most profound pieces of music in the piano repertoire. The opening octaves were split between the hands but Freire nevertheless conveyed considerable dramatic force and impact. The textures were played with an extraordinary crystalline clarity and at times the fugal episodes were played at such a pace that the music almost threatened to disintegrate, perfectly depicting the lack of emotional integration at the heart of this music. The intense drama of the opening movement, the elements of harmonic surprise and dark whirling menace of the textures were conveyed brilliantly. Freire’s performance of the seraphic slow movement was one of the most beautiful and inspired pieces of piano playing I have ever heard in a live recital. The pulse remained steady throughout with Freire allowing the composer’s subdivision of the note values to take effect naturally and organically. He invested a gorgeous palette of sound on the variations and brought out the architectural unity of the piece in a highly cogent way. In the final section he managed to convey a feeling of weightlessness and of spiritual communion with the divine.
There were some minor changes to the published programme so the second half opened with Debussy’s Les collines d’Anacapri. Here I was struck by the transparency and lightness of sound while the central tango section was played with warmth and sincerity. Les Soirées dans Grenade was sultry and sensuous with Freire sustaining wonderfully the shifting kaleidoscopic textures and sonorities. Poissons d’or was in turn light, ethereal, capricious and dazzling while the control of the undulating textures in the final section was stunning.
From Debussy we moved seamlessly to Rachmaninov with two of the Op 32 Preludes. Freire captured perfectly the atmospheric melancholy of the opening of the B minor while the central section was played with a brooding passion – this performance reminded me of Rachmaninov’s own playing. The shaping of the right hand figurations in the G Sharp minor Prelude was exquisite and the piece seemed to burn with a subdued intensity.
The recital concluded with a trio of late works by Chopin – works that are extremely well known but often not well played in the concert hall. Freire’s account of the F Minor Ballade was outstanding: there was always a feeling of purpose and momentum in this performance with Freire expertly linking and characterising the various episodes in the piece and using a rich and gorgeous range of colours. The left hand figurations immediately prior to the coda were gossamer light and the coda itself was played with climactic power, bringing the piece to a shattering conclusion. There was a wonderful feeling of space and airiness in the Berceuse and the right hand figurations were played with exceptional delicacy and a high degree of technical finish. To conclude the recital, Freire played Chopin’s perennially popular Polonaise in A Flat: he must have played this piece countless times but it emerged completely fresh and gleaming with all the swagger and gusto of the dance shining through.
This was absolutely wonderful playing from Freire – the audience responded by giving him a standing ovation.