Andante favori, WoO57
Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor, Op.111
Preludes, Book 1 – V: Les collines d’Anacapri
Estampes – II: La soirée dans Grenade
Images, Série II – III: Poissons d’or
Preludes Op.32 – No.10 in B minor & No.12 in G sharp minor
Ballade in F minor, Op.52
Berceuse in D flat, Op.57
Polonaise in A flat, Op.53
Nelson Freire (piano)
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 19 May, 2014
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall
One of the piano-teaching mantras I’ve been on the receiving end of over the decades is the one-side-of-a-triangle ideal of the brain connecting directly with the hands, seemingly without reference to the other two sides of the mechanism-triangle of shoulder and arm. Nelson Freire’s playing realises the ideal with disarming directness and engaging self-effacement. The courtly, slightly stiff bearing of the great 70-year-old Brazilian master gives you no inkling of his reservoirs of technique, his identification with style and his impeccable interpretative judgment. Also the toned suppleness of his playing has the weight and elasticity of a much younger player. It’s easy to understand his cult following and the nationalist pride he’s held in, to which the exuberant South American element in the audience bore witness in this rare London recital held over from March 2 on medical advice – Freire is, after all, only human.
The only reservation I had became apparent in Beethoven’s Andante favori – the voicing of the piano’s lower register sounded rather soft-centred, contrasting significantly with the customary Steinway brightness higher up. It made sense, though, in the context of Freire’s seemingly infinite varieties of touch and attack which conjured an astonishing tonal range – the sort of playing that brings you up short on what the Andante deceptively simple opening has got up its sleeve. In its central section, Freire’s limpid right-hand octaves gave a particular frisson, and while he got the scale and charm of this ‘Waldstein’ Sonata slow-movement reject absolutely right, he hinted at larger possibilities. These were much in evidence in his compelling reading of Opus 111. The velvety tone notwithstanding, the opening had an architectural definition and drama of great power, heightened by the increased intensity of the exposition repeat. In the second movement, the Variations’ opening-out was built on a secure exchange between pace and pressure, his way in and out of the starry trills were beautifully accomplished, and the longed-for C sharp in the transformed main theme of the closing bars was a moment of pure grace. Here was a performance that took nothing for granted and was completely at ease with Beethoven’s visionary originality.
The piano came into its own in the second half, Freire realising the colours in Debussy’s palette and suggesting many more. A bell-like, luminous clarity and feeling for distance radiated from ‘Les collies d’Anacapri’, and there was an infectiously random evanescence to the accompaniments in ‘Poissons d’or’. Freire shifted his objective appraisal of Debussy’s impressionism to something much more personal in the two Preludes from Rachmaninov’s Opus 32 set, the B minor a weighty affirmation of the composer’s melancholy at its grandest. In Freire’s Chopin group there was a marvellously organic sweep and energy to the F minor Ballade, the Berceuse’s cradle-rocking left hand became a meditative chant against Freire’s intoxicating freedom in the dizzy invention of the variations going on in the right hand, and he released his inner extrovert in the A flat Polonaise as well as causing jaws to drop at his command of the left-hand octaves in the middle section. Freire has the rare ability of becoming the music, of being its master by being its servant, and lucky for us to be the beneficiaries of such musicianship. The standing ovation was heartfelt, as was his encore, Gluck’s ‘Dance of the Blessed Sprit’ arranged by Sgambati.