If the movie "Diva," had been made about a thrilling but reclusive pianist instead of a singer, Nelson Freire could have been the star. That is not just because the bearded, compactly handsome pianist is good-looking enough for movies, but because he is as shy as his playing is extroverted.
"I am not shy -- I am quiet," the pianist politely protests. "There is a difference."
That difference matters little to local piano aficionados who have waited expectantly all season for Freire's performances of the Schumann concerto tonight and tomorrow with the Baltimore Symphony. Among piano fans and other pianists, he is regarded as one of the greatest virtuosos alive.
The cognoscenti have been trading pirated Freire tapes for years, rating them at or near the top of the pianophile's underground tape and record market. He simply does not give enough concerts or make enough commercial records to satisfy his many admirers.
"About 60 concerts a year is enough for me," Freire says. "Even that number sometimes makes me feel that I travel for a living instead of make music."
The 46-year-old Brazilian, who lives in Paris, says he records infrequently because he doesn't like playing for microphones.
"I don't like the whole process -- you play, then listen [to playbacks]; play, listen; play, listen. Once I tried to make TC record as if I were playing a recital. Even then, I just ended up listening to myself too much. It is too unnatural."
The pianist has been going his own way for a long time. He gave his first public recital at the age of 3, and two years later his parents moved to Rio de Janeiro so that their son, who could already play better than his first teacher, could find a new one.
"With my 5-year-old machismo, however, I just refused to listen to anyone who tried to teach me anything," Freire says. "My parents were on the point of giving up and going home."
A famous Brazilian teacher told Freire's parents that the boy was too "crazy" for her. "But," Freire relates with a smile, "she recommended one of her students because 'she's good with children and a little crazy herself.' "
At 14, the boy was shipped off alone to Vienna to the great teacher Bruno Seidlhofer. At the time, he recalls, he couldn't speak a single word of German except for 'ja' and 'nein.' A first prize in Portugal's prestigious Vianna da Motta Competition in 1964 led to some important concerts that, in turn, led to a remarkable series of records in the late 1960s and early '70s that solidified Freire's reputation.
Among those early records is a Schumann concerto that has just been reissued by SONY Classics. This is a work that has been in Freire's repertory almost since he began concertizing and it is one that never ceases to challenge him.
"It's so much more difficult than it sounds," the virtuoso says. "It's a very subtle dish; any success you achieve in it is all in the seasoning."