Singapore International Piano Festival 2014: 28 Jun – Nelson Freire
BEETHOVEN Andante favori, WoO 57
BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata No. 32 in C major, Op. 111
DEBUSSY Les colines d’Anacapri (No. 5 from Preludes, Book I)
DEBUSSY la soiree dans Grenade (No. 2 from Estampes)
DEBUSSY Poissons d’or (No. 3 from Images, Book II)
RACHMANINOV Prelude in B minor, Op. 32 No. 10
RACHMANINOV Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op. 32 No. 12
CHOPIN Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52
CHOPIN Berceuse in D-flat major, Op. 57
CHOPIN Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53 “Heroique”
School of the Arts Concert Hall
28 June 2014
Nelson Freire, piano
Review by Soo Kian Hing
Notwithstanding the fact that it was a Saturday evening, tonight must be the highlight of the Festival — Nelson Freire played to a full house! Despite starting late by half an hour, everyone waited without complaint like the congregation before a Mass, and when he finally appeared stiffly, Freire was welcomed warmly like a pope. Here, I must make a small confession: I got to know about Freire a few years ago only because of his frequent partner-in-music, Martha Argerich. Because she chose to partner with him for duets so often, I felt compelled to find out more about this mysterious best friend, and in the process stumbled upon an amazing musical personality who is every bit as modest and genteel as Argerich is gregarious and glamorous.
Growing up in the forties and fifties in Brazil, he was a prodigy at the piano, already playing Mozart at three years old and appearing publicly at around the same time. His parents had to move from their provincial home in Boa Esperanca to Rio de Janeiro, then the capital, when his piano teacher became redundant after just twelve lessons. In Rio, young Nelson passed through many teachers who found him difficult to train because of his precocity (he claimed he was an unruly child), and his parents were on the verge of giving up and returning to Boa Esperanca. Finally, after another two years, Freire met the one person who opened the door for his career: Lucia Branco, a pupil of the Belgian pianist Arthur de Greef, himself a student of Franz Liszt. Branco’s student Nise Obino took him under her wing and became like a second mother to him; he was very emotionally attached to her until she passed away in 1995. For seven years Freire began training in earnest with Branco and Obino, after which he went to Vienna on the President’s own scholarship to study with famous pedagogue Bruno Seidlhofer, who was a musical descendent of Carl Czerny through Leschetizky. Coincidentally, it was while studying under Seidlhofer that he met another South American student: Martha Argerich, and thus began a lifelong friendship — some would say they are musical soulmates — both on and off the stage.
Having had teachers of such prestigious lineage, one would expect a luminous celebrity full of virtuosity and pomp. On the contrary, Freire in the public spotlight is a quiet man, self-effacing and reclusive. He does not promote himself, neither does he have a publicist do it for him. There is almost nothing about his personal life in the press — “talking about myself, it actually bores me”, he said during an interview with Stephen Wigler of The Baltimore Sun in 1992. After winning numerous awards and concertising around the world for half a century with leading conductors, as well as having been inducted into Philips Records’ list of 72 “Great Pianists of the 20th Century” — thereby placing him on the same pedestal as Rubinstein, Horowitz, Kempff and Richter — Nelson Freire still manages to keep a low profile out of the limelight, preferring to let his music speak for itself. In short, he is very much “one of the best kept secrets in the world of the piano”.
Tonight, the SOTA Hall’s piano sounded more favourable for playing Beethoven than it was yesterday, giving a drier sound with much less reverberation. I own a Yamaha home digital piano and have been practising it every day since years, so as each key was strained on the piano at the hall, I could make out where and what was going wrong. In the opening Andante favori, Freire immediately established his mark as a veteran of the “Golden Age of Pianists”: a term pianophiles use loosely to refer to a “lost” style of pianism from the first half of the twentieth century, with a clear singing voice that placed musicianship above technique, and the ability to entrance even with the simplest pieces. Even though it was a relatively short and light work, the Andante was played with charm and candour, the left hand crisp and clear, never blurred by the pedal.
The rest of the programme bore some rumination. Whether by chance or by choice, the evening was to feature mostly mature pieces by the featured composers: Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Chopin’s last Ballade, the last of Debussy’s six Images, and two of the last few Preludes that Rachmaninov wrote. In addition to being the technical end-all of the composers’ oeuvre, these pieces contain the culmination of their musical knowledge, presented in a concise summary whittled down to the bare essentials, free of extraneous and unnecessary detail; the fruit of their labour in a lifetime of music, if you will. This programme was not to be undertaken lightly, but being in the golden years himself — he will turn seventy in a few months — Freire must have felt some commiseration with the composers’ musical philosophies.
Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32, his final piano sonata, is a two-movement departure from the usual sonata form; but, given the composer’s collective understanding of the form, is really the pinnacle of sonata writing. The first movement was given a muscular and intimidating read, and barring a few rhythmic ambiguities, is an undisputed display of virtuosity in technique and musicality. While not strictly a fugue, the contrapuntal nature of the writing was captured vividly by Freire, whose command of the piano was so complete that every line was given its own voice, neither overbearing nor overshadowed.
Hearing Freire’s Beethoven brought to mind the fact that Beethoven wrote his late sonatas for an “upgraded” instrument sent to him by English piano manufacturer Broadwood in 1817 (it is still on display at the Hungarian National Museum, having been willed to the museum by Franz Liszt). Utilising an iron frame and being able to support a broader key range with thicker strings, it was a vast improvement on the wooden and delicate Viennese fortepianos which were popular then. Nevertheless, it was still a far cry from the modern concert grand piano, which has many more iron parts and overstringing to give the thunderous bass and rich harmonics we are now familiar with. This means that while Beethoven wrote for a louder and more complex sound, the left hand should still be lighter and run freer than is customary on the modern grand, and every voice in a different register should sing individually, even in the bass. To be able to do this on a modern concert grand — which to me is a limitation and not a boon when playing Beethoven — is difficult enough for any pianist, but Freire’s playing was austere and utterly natural, drawing beauty and power out of the Steinway without sacrificing clarity of line.
“After soccer the piano is the second great love of Brazilians. But while Brazilian pianists have mostly worked in Europe and have certainly been deeply influenced by Europe, it is generally accepted that they have a certain rhythm, a kind of vibration that you don’t find elsewhere.” (Nelson Freire, from an interview with Stany Kol, 1995). This point was remarkably brought home in the second movement of the Beethoven sonata. As the plaintive theme developed through variations into a frenzied euphoria, the dotted rhythms were given an extra — shall I say — boost by Freire, and played almost like the syncopations of a samba. The joie de vivre with which he played this section somehow brought me images of the Rio Carnival, and of course you cannot get more Brazilian than with Freire, who has said that he loves to play the music of his native country, like the (Brazilian) tangos and choros. The festive mood was short-lived, however, and soon after the sonata continued on with its long coda and treacherous trills toward an unresolved conclusion: an admission, some analysts say, of Beethoven’s final acceptance of the uncertainty and vicissitudes of life.
After the intermission, Freire returned to the stage visibly more relaxed, and immediately launched into Debussy’s character-pieces. For a very brief while, he transported the audience to Anacapri in Naples with ‘Les collines d’Anacapri’, then to Granada in Spain with ‘La soiree dans Grenada’, and finally to the Orient with ‘Poissons ‘dor’. Through them all his colouring was light and exotic, and the Neapolitan folk-song was again coloured with an inevitable hint of Brazil. Rachmaninov’s Prelude in B minor, Op. 32 No. 10 is famous for being inspired by Arnold Bocklin’s painting “Die Heimkehr” (“The Homecoming”). Quite unlike what the title suggests, this piece is really a study in depression, ruefulness and internal conflict. In the painting, a weary soldier returns home after a long war, yet he hesitates to step back into a world he barely recognised, dithering at the edge of a well looking forlornly at his house in the distance, where surely his family were going about their own lives. The premise of the entire Prelude is based on this “should I, or should I not” angst, and here Freire gave a wonderfully accurate reading of the spirit of this Prelude. The Prelude in G-sharp minor, by contrast, was a brief glimpse into an exotic snowscape, undermined by a gentle disquiet in the left hand, quite unlike any other interpretation that I have heard before.
If there was any doubt remaining over the adour and admiration accorded to Freire, it would have been blown to pieces by the time he played the three Chopin pieces. In these he gave the audience a rare glimpse into Chopin’s sound-world, with a bel canto style that could only be described as The Golden Tone — that indescribable and mythical quality of a warm, burnished piano tone possessed by pianists of The Golden Age, that was like liquid gold to the ears. This elusive Golden Tone, laments most pianophiles and critics, is all but lost on the new generation of mechanistic pianists who are churned out in droves by conservatories, and nobody seems to be able to do it anymore. Freire transported us back into a past age with Chopin’s fourth Ballade, using a strong narrative that the composer possibly meant to mirror his own life in music. The audience, so bewitched by his performance, immediately broke out into applause after the Ballade, even as Freire may have meant to segue into the Berceuse without a break. That would have been ideal, for the lullaby was a perfect foil for the epic Ballade, a gentle lilting consolation for the composer that all was right with the world, weaving a filigree of silvery notes out of a basso ostinato that stretched and waned with effortless elasticity. Finally, the Polonaise in A-flat major “Heroique” brought the audience back into the world of Chopin the nationalistic hero. Freire did not dwell on the specifics of virtuosity, instead choosing to emphasize the poetry and fervour of the piece, and concluded the programme on a high note.
In the Golden Age of the Piano, encores were not simply throwaway affairs, but carefully calculated to tease and rouse the audience to generate some kind of celebratory mood, just like how soccer fans celebrate after a winning match. Given that the World Cup is currently underway in Freire’s home country of Brazil, this would be a most serendipitously apt description of his encores, of which he offered four. The first was the Sgambati transcription of the “Melodie: Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Eurydice, a piece that was recorded by another Brazilian pianist Guiomar Novaes, whom Freire admired greatly, but Freire has really made this piece his own, now. He played it slower than on his recordings, but that made it all the more precious and transparent, moving in its delicacy and evocative in its sheer beauty, and time literally stopped for a few minutes. The rest of the three encores were not immediately familiar – ‘The Little Pierrot’s Pony ‘ and ‘The Fife of a Precocious Daydreamer’ from Villa-Lobos’ Children’s Carnaval as well as Mompou’s ‘Jeunes Filles au jardin’, but they were unmistakably Brazilian in their tango rhythms, and Puck-ish in their mischievous ferocity. Quite noticeably, the last of the Brazilian’s reserve melted away while playing these inspired works from his homeland, and he smiled wryly as the audience called him back for more; nonetheless he obliged happily. As he sat down to play the fourth encore, the audience actually gave a massive holler-and-whoop that would not be out of place at the World Cup!
And that was the moment when I realised that: as much as Nelson Freire is a top-rate musician, our window to the past Golden Age of Pianists, and a wordless mystery when it comes to his public persona; beneath that unassuming smile is a charming Brazilian who — like a Cheshire Cat — defies all explanations, and will come and go as he pleases.
Note: some information about Freire’s life were quoted from a candid interview with Stany Kol, Secretary of Unesco’s General Conference, published September 1995 in Le Courrier de l‘Unesco.