Nelson Freire shuffles onto the platform - on almost expected to see a Zimmer frame in the wings - but once seated at the piano, the steel, spring and padded softness of his touch on keyboard wipes away any hint of infirmity.
As the program notes advised us, he had wiped away the promoted program. No Chopin ballades or mazurkas, no Shostakovich dances, no Rachmaninoff preludes: “you have to have a little bit of freedom and inspiration”. These elements, plus rigour were beautifully balanced across the recital program he did deliver.
The first session was devoted to Bach transcriptions by Siloti (he who promoted a butchered version of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2), Busoni and Hess. All were memorable for their clarity and power (both dramatic and gentle). The mediative nature of the organ Prelude in G Minor BWV 535 (Siloti) and the well-known serenity of Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring from Cantata 147 (Hess) were beautifully paced inviting us in to inspect their structure. Busoni always intrigues, layering a level of artful fantasy across the scaffolding of Bach’s sturdy baseline. In these arrangements, Freire segued across the two chorales preludes (BWV639, BWV 667) covering their highly varied moods with equal aplomb.
The clarity and inspiration of the fugue was given further reflection in his performance of the Beethoven Sonata No 31, in A flat, Opus 110 (1822) – its Fuga was a triumph of structured logic and impending glory. The inexorable tension and release of the last movement was overwhelming, as it should be. One also marvelled at the gradated power that Freire could execute as well as the dexterity of the glittering second movement where the abrupt changes of late Beethoven are channelled into a more playful, lilting ambience. The Adagio that preceded the Fuga was full of interplay between melancholy and sweet humour.
After interval, Freire gave a magical performance of the Debussy Children’s Corner (1908). This well known work (often better known in its adopted orchestral garb) was freshly minted. The padded touch, the buoyant spring, the swift response to mood and key was thrilling. The plasticity of response to such varied inventions as The snow is dancing and Jimbos Lullaby gave us clarity within the fantastical, all rooted in human love. Freire’s performance invited comparison with written recollections of Debussy’s own pianism – clear attack, transparent sonority, quick and light motion, softness, his tonal quality intact in the most pressing crescendos. If only the Sydney ‘audience coughers’ had listened instead of coughing throughout such stunning pianism.
The final programmed work was the Chopin Sonata No. 3, Opus 58 (1844). Steely architecture and singing line were combined in a performance whereby Chopin’s lyricism - that overflowing melodic invention – was crisply revealed, while the sonata’s structural integrity was carefully mapped.
Many 19th century composers – Liszt, Rossini, Mendelssohn, Offenbach – were inspired to great heights by the songs of the Gondolieri. Chopin was no exception. His Largo (Barcarolle) unfolds immense beauty: this was paced to perfection by Freire. Some may had found the Finale lacking in the last touch of breathless energy, but it built its power through inexorable logic and gathering strength, mirroring its ‘presto, non tanto’ marking. Its oratory did not require bombast.
Freire seemed to have reserves of strength at the end of this performance.
The encores followed, most memorably the Grieg Lyric Piece, Wedding Day at Troldhaugen. How exhilarating this work is in its original keyboard intent. The country lilt, the soft introspection, the Nordic gaiety and evanescence were elevated by the playing into a tone poem of crystalline humanity. As the program note told us about his response to music: “if I don't love them, I cannot think of them”. He clearly loves this work.
Freire finally shuffled off the stage with a little smudge of a smile on his enigmatic face. He had certainly fed us freedom and inspiration on the bedrock of a lifetime’s knowledge, playing and love.
SSO – International Pianists in Recital – Angel Place Recital Hall – Sydney – September 26, 2016