Grand Pianist

Nelson Freire is world-class but not world-known, though his music resonates with everyone who hears it

March 14, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Nelson Freire sits patiently at the piano on the stage of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, waiting to begin a rehearsal for this week's concerts. As guest conductor Michiyoshi Inoue discusses a few things with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Freire's fingers do a kind of limbering-up exercise - rapid scales up and down the keyboard, without actually depressing the keys.

Although not a sound comes from the piano during this shadow-playing, you can almost hear the artistry, the way you can imagine hearing a great silent-film actor's lines just by the expressions on his face. Moments later, when Freire does strike the keys and begins to play Chopin's F minor Piano Concerto with the orchestra, it's the real thing, all right.

Piano fans have long placed Freire in an exalted class - and lamented the fact that he lacks greater fame.

"Every person I know who knows anything about the piano cannot figure out why he's not a household name," another extraordinary pianist, Ivan Davis, says from his Miami home. "Nelson always satisfies me totally. He plays everything the way I always hoped it would be played."

Freire has been triggering that sort of praise from a tender age. At 3, he was playing by ear the music he heard his older sister practicing. He gave his first recital a year later and began formal studies with two of Brazil's best teachers, one of whom had studied with a pupil of Franz Liszt.

At 10, a street was named after Freire in his hometown of Boa Esperanca in Brazil. At 12, he performed Beethoven's Emperor Concerto in a competition. ("I've got a recording of that, and it's simply spectacular," Davis says). That led to a Brazilian government scholarship for studies in Vienna.

By the late 1960s, the pianist was wowing European audiences; the United States and Japan were quickly added to his conquests. (He made his last BSO appearances in 1994.) His relatively few recordings were eagerly snapped up by collectors.

But a natural reticence worked against the pianist in a field where self-promotion is part of the game. "I have as little as possible to do with the business side, which has never appealed to me," Freire says during a break in the rehearsal. "It's so - I don't know the word - anti-musical. That's what it is. I try to keep my distance."

Fortunately, the classical music business has just gotten closer to the pianist. Decca, a major record label, recently signed Freire to an exclusive contract; the first fruit of that deal, a brilliant all-Chopin CD, was released on Tuesday.

This says a lot at a time when the classical recording industry is in a severe downward spiral, and when the remnants of that industry are more likely to seize on the latest bright, young musician than a veteran. For 57-year-old Freire to be back in the recording studio is a rare sign of hope.

When asked about it, the pianist just smiles. "It's strange," he says between puffs of a cigarette. "When everyone else stops making records, I start. I spent so many years not making records; I was never really happy making them. But I figured if I waited too long, there might not be another opportunity."

That opportunity came after Jean-Hugues Allard, Decca's vice president of artists and repertoire, encountered Freire a few years ago in France. "I was astounded by the sparkle and depth of his music-making," Allard said in a statement after the contract-signing. "He has quietly grown into a grand master with great integrity."

The three main ingredients of that mastery were spelled out by Davis in his notes for a still-coveted live recording on the Audiofon label of a 1984 Miami recital - "natural (both in pianism and musical honesty), provocative (now why didn't I think of that?), and inevitable (a totality of technique and temperament)."

As the BSO rehearsal of the Chopin concerto continues, those gifts assert themselves. The sureness of attack - Davis refers to the pianist's "homing pigeon fingers" - is as impressive as the constant play of light and shadow in the phrasing. Above all, there is the sheer aural quality involved.

"The main preoccupation of my first teachers was not fingers," Freire says, "but sound. The sound should be natural."

That may seem awfully obvious, until you start comparing pianists. It's hard to find one who can summon as unforced and prismatic a tonal palette as Freire. He seems incapable of a monotonous performance; the sound alone is always alive.

He invariably shapes melodic lines with interesting nuances, nowhere more compellingly than with Chopin. Although his repertoire easily spans Bach to Bartok and beyond, Freire always will be associated strongly with Chopin.

The new Decca CD, which includes the Sonata No. 3 and the Etudes, Op. 25, defines the pianist's incisive approach. Rhythms are beautifully elastic without ever becoming exaggerated; phrases are spun out with a disarming sense of inner poetry.

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