WELCOME RETURN TO AUSTRALIA: Brazilian Pianist Nelson Freire

Screen Shot 2016-09-10 at 9.30.10 PM.pngNelson Freire is a Brazilian pianist. Nelson Freire was a child prodigy. Nelson Freire is a superstar. Nelson Freire is shy. These are just some of the words used to describe an undeniable star of the piano world who will be visiting Sydney in September to perform both a solo recital and Schumann’s Piano Concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. But Freire is a man, who by his own admission is “difficult to define”.

He tells Fine Music: “Of course I try to be honest and generous not only in music but in life as well. I’m happy if it comes out when I play. But ‘what am I’ is hard to tell.

“Sometimes I look back and think ‘I have been so many Nelsons in my life’. It may not show from outside but deep inside it is how I feel.”

Perhaps it is this ux and introspection that makes Freire such a captivating soloist. A pianist is the musician without a section, the piano the instrument that can imitate
all others but yet it stands alone. A piano is many things just as Nelson Freire has been many men. So how will they combine in this September recital?

Freire in recital

Freire’s selection of pieces is inspired by the same philosophy with which he views himself. He can play a piece for decades so long as “I see and feel differently whenever I approach them”.

If this is found not to be the case he lays the work aside and waits “until it comes to life again”.

Freire opens his September program with Bach, a feature of his 2016 season. Asked where, in light of the HIP (historically informed performance) movement, Freire sees Bach’s place in the piano repertory, he replies emphatically: “Bach! The father of Music. Ageless, his works display all that would come after him”.

This would be reason enough for Bach’s music to open a recital but Freire adds further justification: “Sometimes before practice, ‘if I’m not in a musical mood, I start playing Bach and immediately there’s an awakening”.

Audiences, thus, will be aroused by Bach’s Partita No. 4, a delightful set of dances that rely on a pianist’s understanding and technique to show off their individual character.

From Bach, Freire moves to Beethoven. The Sonata No. 32 in C minor was to be Beethoven’s last Piano Sonata and one of his final compositions for piano. It is discernibly mature with its perfectly balanced two movements (eschewing the traditional three) and the complexity of its musical and emotional language. Asked if he thinks Beethoven had a specific fascination with C minor (it is the key of his 5th Symphony and many other great works), Freire explains that, “Beethoven has expressed all the human emotions. From joy to anger, sadness to exaltation and so on. His life, everyone knows, was incredibly hard. C minor is the key of drama, but also revolt and strength.

“Chopin knew it when he composed his Revolutionary Etude. That fight was constant in Beethoven’s life, therefore so many (of his) significant works are in that key.”

Freire will surely bring something unique to the work, as he will, too, with the succeeding ‘palate cleanser’. Shostakovich’s Three Fantastic Dances are the composer’s earliest piano compositions and are both short and characterful. In this recital they act as a reprieve before Freire’s two chosen Rachmaninoff Preludes. Freire has selected the B minor and G minor Preludes of Rachmaninoff’s Opus 32 for the way that they reflect aspects of the composer.

“The B minor,” Freire explains, “was [Rachmaninoff’s] favourite, apparently. It’s said it was inspired by the BÖcklin painting The Homecoming”. This nostalgic and powerful Prelude is set in contrast to the “fluid G sharp minor”. The many facets of Nelson Freire are at play once more.

There occurs the thought that a recital program is not dissimilar to curating an art exhibition. It’s about how you balance the works so that even the most famous can be seen, or heard, anew. It is perhaps with this philosophy in mind that Freire selects to round off his program with Chopin. He is a Chopin devotee and his recordings are much celebrated. Describing his ongoing exploration of Chopin, Freire says, “Chopin? How sad would be the world without him. It’s music that touches everyone’s heart no matter which part of the World. He was maybe the best thing that happened to the piano for in his hands the piano was no more a percussion instrument but became a singing one”. And so Freire will dance, with two Mazurkas, and sing his way to the final glorious Ballade No. 4. And so the recital will end and Freire will take his bow.

Screen Shot 2016-09-10 at 9.35.00 PM.pngLehninger, Freire and the SSO

If the recital is the nale to Freire’s Sydney visit, Schumann’s Piano Concerto is the impassioned lead up. It is the centrepiece to a concert that opens with Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture and closes with Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2. A concerto is a test of faith between the soloist and conductor. Leverage given for interpretation must be repaid with skill and integrity; combined in this way, magic can occur. Freire is to share the stage with fellow Brazilian, conductor Marcelo Lehninger. The two are long-time friends and collaborators, impressing audiences in the US with their compelling interpretations. The music they play, it is said, breathes.

Though still in his 30’s, Lehninger has already had an illustrious career. Assisting James Levine at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he was asked to step in at short notice when Levine took ill. In his rise to fame, he became known for ‘saving the day’. What, then, will Lehninger make of the story of Coriolanus? Perhaps, like Beethoven, he will relate to the tale of a lone man who heroically goes against orders. Or, perhaps, he will empathise with Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia, a gentle and humane woman who pleads with her son to save himself. The facets of these two characters are coded in music. Coriolanus’ theme is in C minor, Beethoven’s key of drama, revolt and strength, as Freire explained, whereas Volumnia is depicted in Eb major, the key of love and devotion.

When Freire joins Lehninger and the SSO to perform Schumann’s Piano Concerto, they will enter the world of A minor. Schumann’s only piano concerto began its life as a one movement Concert Fantasy. It was intended for, dedicated to, and shaped by his love for his wife Clara. It is no wonder, then, that A minor was chosen, being the key of pious womanliness and tenderness of character. When Clara rehearsed the Concert Fantasy she remarked that, “the piano is interwoven with the orchestra in the most delicate way – one can’t imagine the one without the other.”

Screen Shot 2016-09-10 at 9.36.16 PM.pngIt is a marriage, or concerto best realised, and the perfect foray for Freire and Lehninger’s mutual sensitivities. In its three movement form, the concerto moves from the opening fantasy to a slower and more delicate second movement. The modesty of this is balanced by the joy and vivacity of the nale. A woman, like a pianist, can be many things, and Schumann draws on this notion in his concerto. But as his lasting impression, he chooses a waltz – Clara in his arms for eternity.

Love between people may be the theme of the first half but after interval a more religious note is invoked. Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, with its stirring gloom,
is the perfect emotional counterbalance to round out the concert. A piece that begins in mystery before breaking out into resounding wind chords and trembling strings, it will be fascinating to see how Lehninger controls the drama. Each movement evokes its own emotional world. The uneasy suspense of the rst movement gives rise to a livelier second movement but one interwoven with the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath from the Requiem Mass). The slow third movement indulges in the beauty of a melody that allows the clarinet to sing but this calm is soon broken by the might of the fourth movement. Fanfares, bells and Rachmaninoff’s signature rhythmic pattern (yum-pa-ta-tum) bring this epic piece to a close.

Screen Shot 2016-09-10 at 9.42.17 PM.pngThree pieces spanning 100 years in time and the breadth of human emotion. Balanced as they are, the concert has the potential to be that perfectly curated art exhibition; one that permits an audience to experience, rather than just hear, music. In the making of music, each has their part to play – the united force of the orchestra, the artistic acumen of the conductor and the transfixion of the soloist – a concert requires them all. But the wonder of live music is the way it shifts in identity. Just as Nelson Freire has been many Nelsons so Rachmaninoff in Sydney is but just one incarnation. It’s what keeps us going back.

– Nicky Gluch


This article appeared in the September edition of Fine Music Magazine – you can subscribe to our monthly magazineand have it posted to your home or business or click the link here to read online.

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