Pianists Freire and Toradze stretch the limits of interpretation MEMORABLE MOMENTS

December 27, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

What I remember best about the year now ending are two very different performances of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3. The soloist in the first was Alexander Toradze, in his performance of the piece last winter with the Baltimore Symphony; the second was Nelson Freire in his interpretation with the same orchestra in July.

Each was unforgettable because they were among the best performances I have heard in more than 30 years of listening to what in some ways is my favorite piece of music. But the two performances were so diametrically opposed that they have created an axis around which I spin my wheels every time I think about the possibilities of artistic interpretation.

The Russian-born and -trained Toradze was playing the piece for the first time at the age of 40. He had known the work all his life -- performing this piece is a rite of passage for all virtuosos and particularly for Russian ones -- and he had clearly been thinking about it for most of that time.

What he offered was a radical reinterpretation. So aware was Toradze of the performing traditions that surround the Rachmaninoff Third -- the way, for example, that performances of this piece have been growing slower and slower -- that what the pianist did was take this tendency to its logical conclusion. He played the concerto more slowly --adding about 10 minutes more than most performances to its length -- and more loudly than anyone in history. One was constantly aware of the "originality" of the interpretation because one kept wondering and worrying: "How is it that I have never heard that detail before?" or "How can he play so slowly without the musical line snapping?"

Freire was astonishing in other ways. The 47-year-old Brazilian had been playing the work since he was a teen-ager. And while he is much too intelligent a musician to be unaware of its traditions -- he is, in fact, as aware of them as Toradze -- his performance gave the impression that not only did he know nothing about the way this piece had been played in the 80 years since its composition and its first performance by the composer himself, but also that he had never heard it played before. That's how fresh, how unself-conscious and how personal his playing was.

dTC If Toradze's playing seemed to say, "This is the tradition and now hear what I am about to do to it," Freire's seemed to say . . . nothing. For the interpreter appeared to disappear into the piece as the pianist seemed to intuit it directly without any mediating tradition. Toradze's self-consciously gigantic interpretation seemed to redefine playing the Rachmaninoff Third as take-no-prisoners warfare; Freire's unself-conscious and unobtrusively lyrical reading was simply the Rachmaninoff No. 3.

Two centuries ago, the German poet and dramatist Friedrich Schiller made a useful distinction between "naive" and "sentimental" art. He defined naive art in terms of wholeness of experience and direct apprehension of feeling; by naive he meant art that conceals art, in which the artist seems to disappear into his artistry, an art that seems to have no precedents and is unaware of and unhampered by a defining tradition. By sentimental, Schiller meant an art that is striving and heroic, aware of traditions in so far as it tries to define itself by breaking them or extending them, an art in which it is impossible to forget the figure of the artist as he is forging it. In juxtaposing naive with sentimental, Schiller was juxtaposing Goethe (naive) with himself (sentimental), but the juxtapositions can be extended to Mozart vs. Beethoven, Shakespeare vs. Milton, Michelle Pfeiffer vs. Meryl Streep. Or, for that matter, Freire and Toradze.

It is impossible to say which of these is greater, only that they are different. There are occasions when the same person might prefer the naive to the sentimental and others when he would prefer it the other way around. Had I heard Freire soon after Toradze, the Brazilian might have sounded superficial, even simple-minded. Had I heard Freire first, I am equally sure that the Russian's interpretation would have sounded impossibly affected and tortured. Each cast a spell so powerful that one had no choice but to dwell in it. I am grateful that several months passed between these two experiences, though not nearly as grateful as I am to have had them.

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