If the movie "Diva" had been made about a thrilling but reclusive pianist, Nelson Freire could have been the star. That is not simply because the bearded, compactly handsome pianist might look good in the movies, but because he's as shy as his playing is extroverted.
"I am not shy -- I am quiet," the pianist politely protests. "There is a difference."
There is indeed a difference. But in a telephone interview from his home in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Freire talks volubly about anything but himself. And any reference to his considerable abilities clearly embarrasses him. But while he is not a household word, Freire, 48, is nothing less than a legend to other pianists and to piano aficionados, who treat pirate Freire tapes with the veneration an art historian might accord to a recently rediscovered Rembrandt.
"When I flatter myself, I think that Nelson plays like me at my best -- except that he does it all of the time," says the well-known American pianist Ivan Davis. "He's a terribly satisfying pianist in every possible way. He was born to play the piano, and he's a combination of the Rubinstein philosophy, in that his playing is so natural, and of the Horowitz imagination, in that he's so electrifying. The only difference is that Nelson is far better technically than Rubinstein ever was, and he doesn't have Horowitz's quirks. As long as I live, I'll never be able to understand why he's not more famous."
One place where Freire is famous is Baltimore. Over the past two seasons with the Baltimore Symphony, he's given performances Schumann and Beethoven that delighted BSO musicians and audiences alike. And he's the centerpiece of this month's Summerfest, in which -- beginning this Thursday -- he will play nothing less than four of the most challenging concertos in the repertory: the Brahms first and second and the Rachmaninov second and third. The reason that the pianist comes to Baltimore so frequently -- this will be his only visit to North America this summer -- is that he and BSO music director David Zinman are old friends. Zinman first conducted for Freire back in 1963 when he was a young conductor beginning to make a European reputation and the pianist was a teen-ager.
"He was wonderful then and he's even more wonderful now," Zinman says. "He's an ideal pianist. The playing is always personal and individual, but because he likes to play chamber music he's a pleasure to work with because he cares about other musicians. The playing is entirely natural, with a huge technique that makes the most difficult music seem very simple. And his sound is glorious -- one of the most beautiful sounds produced by any musician on any instrument."
So why isn't Freire better known?
"Nelson doesn't push himself, and he doesn't hire anyone to do it for him," Zinman says. "He's into music, not into himself."
According to Zinman, big careers are made by recordings -- "It's the quantity, not the quality, that matters," he says -- and except for a recording made with Zinman and with his childhood pal, the pianist Martha Argerich, Freire hasn't visited a recording studio since 1976. And it's not because record companies are uninterested in him.
"Recordings are a chore for him," says Tom Deacon, product manager of Philips Classics in the Netherlands. "Other pianists churn them out -- that's not ever going to happen with Nelson. There's nothing machine-like about him, and if music ever threatened to become machine-like, I'm sure he'd give up
playing the piano."
The pianist doesn't rule out making records again. One French company, aware of Freire's dislike of the recording studio, has offered to record in concerts anything Freire desires.
So why doesn't he accept?
"Maybe I will," the pianist says.
And maybe he won't.
"There are artists who would kill their mothers or sleep with a dog to be successful," says Sula Jaffe, a Rio de Janeiro concert manager who once represented Freire in South America. "Nelson is the opposite of that sort of person."
Freire 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."
The famous Brazilian teacher, Lucia Branco, told Freire's parents that the boy was too "crazy" for her. "But," Freire says, "she
recommended one of her students because 'She's good with children and a little crazy herself.' "