A little too gentle?

September 27, 2016 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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After his sensitive and powerful rendition of the Schumann piano concerto with the SSO last week I was looking forward to a sparkling solo recital form Nelson Freire last night – but I didn’t get it, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

Nelson Freire

Nelson Freire

Freire has been, and probably still is, in the top drawer of international pianists – certainly by reputation, anyway. And, if you like the piano to sound as though somebody has sprayed foam inside it, this was the recital for you. Although 72 year old Freire still possesses a formidable technique and is a master of phrasing, he keeps the sound bottled up for most of the time. Many of my audience colleagues to whom I spoke didn’t agree with me and I’ll take that one on the chin. I was looking for excitement rather than gentle contemplation and maybe they weren’t.

On the indisputable plus side was the choice of program. It covered Bach piano transcriptions, a Beethoven sonata, a Debussy suite and a Chopin sonata. In other words, something for everybody, thank you Nelson.

We began with Siloti’s take on Bach’s Organ Prelude, BWV 535 – a great recital opener because it allows a warmup with unhurried, predictable chords before suddenly exploding into two handed runs and forte wallops. Another prolific Bach transcriber, Busoni, provided piano versions of two choral preludes, BWV 639 and 667. They seemed to want more vivid treatment from Freire even though the wheels wobbled fearsomely towards the end of 667.

Myra Hess’s crowd-pleaser arrangement of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring rounded out the transcriptions. Freire’s reverential quiet was well placed here.

Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 in A flat, Op 110 got the Chopinesque nocturnal treatment from Freire when I was itching for a bit of blood and thunder. The only passages that approached forte were near the end of the final movement.

This gentler take on Beethoven may have made for pleasant enough listening, but didn’t demand my attention.

If Freire’s Beethoven was contemplative, it was no surprise that Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite danced about on spongy grass. These pieces were composed for Debussy’s daughter, ‘Chouchou’, and are utterly charming. Freire played them in that context, but his interpretation would have had a bigger impact if they had been preceded by lustier playing.

The jewel in the crown was undoubtedly the Chopin Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op.58. Chopin had reverted to the four movement sonata form at this stage in his composing career, but he broke new ground within that framework. This is Chopin at his most dramatic and also his most lyrical. Although you couldn’t accuse Freire of hitting wrong notes or not being able to attack a passage like an express train, his right and left hand often seemed to be in disagreement as to where they were in the score. Having said that, I loved his third movement, largo. When the melody shifted to the left hand, supported by a repetitive major sixth figure in the right, it became a heart melter – perfectly suiting his performance style. In the final presto non tanto movement Freire let the lion out of its cage with a brilliant technical and interpretive display and I wish he’d opened the door earlier in the recital.

Apart from his playing, Nelson Freire extracts great affection from his audience. Modesty comes across in the way he walks, sits unmoving at that keyboard (like Arthur Rubenstein and Vladimir Horowitz used to) and shyly bows to applause. On this occasion he was generous with encores which included a deliciously played Chopin Mazurka and Grieg’s “Wedding day at Troldhaugen” – more of a shotgun wedding actually, judging by its furious speed.

Sydney Recital Hall 26 September 2016

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