The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's annual Summerfest got off to a wonderful start last night in Meyerhoff Hall with an all-Brahms program. The centerpiece around which this summer's festival is built is the Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire and he made This is a piece that begins huge, with its first theme over the thunder of kettledrums resounding into infinity, and gets even bigger. Most pianists have traditionally elected to play this piece ferociously. Freire chose another route. Keeping in mind that the piece was written under the influence of Schumann, the Brazilian played the piece in a manner that was primarily poetic, reflective and tender. No pianist in my memory has ever made the slow movement so simple and soulful or made the piano's entrance into the fiercely gnarled world of the first movement so mournfully affecting.
This was also a heroic performance -- Freire's double octaves in the first movement were nothing short of tremendous -- but the pianist let the piece build to its gigantic size in the most natural way imaginable.
His generously scaled, golden tone always carried over the orchestra when necessary and he also knew when to step back and make chamber music. He is an extraordinary pianist who has the knack of doing individual things in a way that almost invariably seems inevitable and right. He began the final set of trills in the slow movement, for example, with a growl in the bass that I cannot get out of my head and will miss whenever I hear other pianists play the piece.