It’s old news by now, but I’m still haunted by the personal and sonorous playing of pianist Nelson Freire at Mostly Mozart last weekend. Just how does he make the piano sing? Freire played with a gentle touch that somehow turned the instrument into a clarinet choir, each chord perfectly balanced, blended, and speaking with an intent. It wasn’t flashy, it wasn’t bangy, it was transparent, and a telescope into the soul.
Freire, a Brazilian pianist, began his international career five decades ago. Piano connoisseurs have long sung his praises, but he hasn’t become a household name (at least, in classical-music-loving households) until recently. For most of the eighties and nineties, he mostly appeared on recordings of the four-hand piano repertory with his friend Martha Argerich. Only lately has he begun recording the core solo and concerto repertory for Decca.
An uncharitable observer might surmise that he’s become a Grand Old Man of the piano just because he’s been around long enough, and most of his competitors have died off. But the concert at the Mostly Mozart Festival last Saturday dispelled that impression. Kozinn at the Times has a thorough review of the concert, including a fine performance of Stravinsky’s Symphony in C. Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto, which followed, is often taken as a slamfest for many modern pianists, but Freire brought a welcome intimacy and nuance to it, even during the more powerful passages.
He gave three encores, the first being Giovanni Sgambati’s transcription of the D-minor section of the Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Apparently Freire plays this all the time, as you can see from this montage of different performances (starts at 3:26):
Next came two pieces we didn’t recognize; after some digging we found Freire playing them on YouTube. First, “O Ginete do Pierrozinho” from the cycle Carnaval das Crianças by Freire’s countryman Heitor Villa-Lobos:
Finally, after the audience started clapping in rhythm, Freire treated us to another piece by Villa-Lobos, “A lenda do Caboclo,” a haunting melody that has accompanied my mind to sleep all this week. Here he is at home, playing a rather rusty instrument, which somehow makes you feel like he’s your affable old uncle.