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A Manifestation of the Inner Will

New York
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center
11/20/2013 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: Organ Prelude in G minor (trans. Alexander Siloti) – Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (trans. Myra Hess)
Johannes Brahms: Klavierstücke, Op. 119
Sergei Prokofiev: Selections from Visions fugitives, Op. 22
Enrique Granados: Goyescas: «Quejas ó la Maja y el Ruisenor»
Frédéric Chopin: Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 – Berceuse in D-flat major, Op. 57 – Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53

Nelson Freire (Piano)

N. Freire (© Mat Hennek)

It’s a mystery that a recital Nelson Freire doesn’t stir up passions, enthusiasms and long long lines waiting to see him. But the Brazilian artist doesn’t have the panache, the showmanship or the joviality of a Hamelin or Lang Lang or Jeremy Kemp. Most people know him as the yin to Martha Argerich’s yang. Or, in another way, she is the pagan warrior, looking for new paths to conquer, new ways to play things. Mr. Freire has the soul of a Buddhist monk.

Plus, he is a damned good piano player.

Still, Alice Tully Hall was filled to the rafters last night. The audience, though, was in a more contemplative mood. The hush before the pianist came on stage was not an awed hush, but rather, the quietness of an audience ready for an exercise in a recital of respect and contemplation.

Mr. Freire did not disappoint them. His program was conservative (Bach, Brahms, Chopin, Prokofiev), his fingers drifted over the keys with an inner meditation, as if the piano would be playing through the triumph of his will. And if visceral excitement was lacking, the audience had the feeling of a rarefied experience.

Yet Nelson Freire would be the last to affirm he was holding the Holy Grail in one hand while playing with the other. While one expected the quietude from most of his program, his inclusion eight Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives lent a charm, a humor, a light joviality to the affair. This was no Russian pianist bouncing along with Prokofiev’s “passing thoughts.” No, Mr. Freire looked for the picturesque, the gentle story-telling, even the aberrations. Mr. Freire could take a sweet white-key theme and subvert it–not with poison, but a few drops of citrus acid. His playing of the “harp” Vision was equally gentle, and the final pianissimo chord from the last of the octet was, in keeping with the artist himself, a note of gentle farewell.

Mr. Freire’s background notwithstanding, he is hardly a “South American” pianist, for his temperament is too fine for that. Granados’ Goyescas has a lively artistry, but this was played with such understatement that it really didn’t register.

Little could be more “Freire-ish” than the opening two transcriptions of Bach, Alexander Siloti’s arrangement of an organ prelude was given an angelic dusting of the keys, and Myra Hess’s well-known Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring had all the right lines in the right place.

The Brahms Opus 119 were what one would expect from Mr. Freire, especially the E Minor Intermezzo, which was both elusive and graceful. One could argue that he takes things always a bit faster than usual, but nothing is left out of the work.

If one adjective goes with Mr. Freire, it is clarity. Complex lines are formed with the ease of an equation (he did this with the contrasting phrases in the Bach Prelude). Both the Brahms and the Chopin were played so that we could feel all the melodies, the phrasing, the perfection of the music.

In two ways, the recital was a bit unsatisfying, as no work lasted more than a few minutes. Not a single sonata, nothing more than the sections and pieces. In other way, one missed the fire of certain works. Chopin’s A-flat Polonaise was beautiful, graceful, but it summoned up dancers rather than fighters.

This was the way Mr. Freire likes his music, and his program, with two encores (Chopin’s Nocturne in D-flat major, Op. 27, No. 2, and Villa-Lobos’s Lenda do Caboclo) his audience like it as well.

Harry Rolnick



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