For fifty years Nelson Freire's recordings have ranged from Beethoven, the Romantics and Brahms to the 20th-century greats – Bartók, Ravel, Stravinsky, Villa-Lobos. Venturing into new waters – Bach the composer, Bach the arranger, Bach arranged – he faces a different challenge.
Freire's pianism is about muscular projection, up-front clarity and expansive gesture. An intimate player when occasion calls, rarely a reticent one, the big stage is where he is most comfortable. In this album he is best in the arrangements, maybe because Busoni, Siloti and Myra Hess fall more readily into his 19th-century grounding. The Siloti transcription is particularly successful, the Hess elegant if not quite as warmly enveloping or song-like as she used to make it. It would be good to hear what he might do with Liszt's or Tausig's Bach arrangements or some of the bigger Busoni canvasses.
The Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue combines brilliancy and buoyancy, Freire sending the Fugue on its way with a lyrical 3/4 spring to the beat that's initially dance-like but, then, befitting the texture and argument, progressively more intense and ferocious. The bite to come in the first movement of the ‘Eroica’, the ‘Hammerklavier’ Finale, crosses one's mind. The C-minor Toccata unfolds with a purposeful sense of form, direction and articulation, the polyphony and dynamics graded and discursive. Given the nature of the reading, the addition of 'Busoni octaves' at the end, leading to an organ-like '64-foot' maggiore cadence, seems necessary and inevitable: by comparison, someone like Argerich, favouring a 'thinner', more skeletal, approach, is markedly less effective.
With the D-major Partita we are in less secure territory: partly because of Freire's erratically selective view on repeats; partly down to unclear graces that don't speak or forget their melodic place; partly in consequence of a brittle, percussive touch. Matters deteriorate with the ‘Gigue’ – a clattering workout short on phrasing and gasping for air, not helped by being so physically recorded. There are beautiful moments however – the Italianate ‘Aria’ for one. Yet – given the Gigue, the forceful 9/8 handling of the ‘Menuet’ (regular quavers redressed as long/short triplets, less persuasively so than Kovacevich) and the first chord of the ‘Ouverture’ – I sense a belligerent rather than beguiling mind at work. Levit, Perahia, Gould, to think of three, offer a more balanced view of this music.
The G-minor English Suite fares slightly better – though, considering available evidence to the contrary, omitting the repeats come the da capo of the ‘Gavotte’ isn't really (or shouldn't be) a tenable option these days. In the ‘Sarabande’, second time around, Bach's agreements are followed. Notwithstanding, reservations remain. Ornaments are too often 'crushed'; there are occasional irregularities in tempo suggestive of editorial mis-matching, for example in the ‘Prélude’; and Freire's unyielding touch persists. The rhythm and characterisation of Perahia or Pires, the inventiveness of Anderszewski, the attack and temperament of Rousset (harpsichord), offer more winning, less aurally fatiguing approaches to these pages.