The Melbourne Recital Centre’s Great Performers concert series kicked off on Monday night with a recital by legendary Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire.
The recital opened with popular fare – Mozart’s Sonata in A major K 331. Unusually the sonata opens with a set of variations and Freire’s opening theme was as lyrical as one could ever wish for. The succeeding variations, increasingly busy as was the Classical wont, unfolded in a direct and unaffected manner with deft pedaling that suited the warm acoustic, never losing clarity of either line or texture. The ensuing Minuet and Trio was notable for the nobility of its projection. Exceptionally for a major key sonata, the finale – the celebrated Rondo alla turca – is in the minor mode, and features janissary effects that reflect the then fashion for Turkish music, heard notably also in Mozart’s opera The Abduction from the Seraglio. Freire resisted the temptation to exaggerate the drum and percussion imitations, opting for a more restrained approach to both line and rhythm. This was an interpretation that may not have won over HIPster Classical purists but it was engaging, neatly executed and stylish from first note to last.
Then followed one of the Romantic era’s most ambitious works Schumann’s towering Fantasie in C major, a work dedicated to no-less-a-pianist than Franz Liszt and whose publication assisted in establishing a monument to Beethoven in Bonn. The opening movement was majestic in presentation, notable for its richness of sonority while allowing the turbulent musical narrative to unfold persuasively. Again Freire maintained unfailingly clear textures throughout, not an especially easy task in the luxurious acoustic of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, but then one would expect no less from a master pianist such as Freire. It is the second movement that instills fear in all but the most accomplished pianists its perilous leaps in the closing pages tending to induce anxiety in both performer and audience alike. Not so tonight. Here Freire was imperious, the richness of his tone again being a highlight, and his assured technique always subservient to a sure-footed and clearly-directed artistic vision. The emotional heart of this grand quasi-sonata however lies perhaps in its unexpectedly broad-paced Finale, Schumann eschewing any hint of a barnstorming crowd-pleasing conclusion. Freire perfectly realized the sublime, meditative, almost improvisatory meandering through unexpected harmonic landscapes. After the tumult and vigour of the opening movements, Peace had thankfully settled in, leaving the audience unwilling to break the spell of the spacious, reassuring simplicity of the closing C major chords
After interval the music headed west as Freire presented works by composers domiciled in France and Spain. Chopin’s Ballade No 3 in A flat major is the most overtly optimistic of the four that he wrote and is a work that can too-easily come across as fragmented. Freire however proved himself to be a Chopinist of the first order with his unerring sense of rhythm, long-arching lyricism and tautness of structure that made for a satisfying whole.
Then followed a bit of froth and bubble with Debussy’s enigmatically titled waltz La plus que lente, Freire allowing its lilting lines to unfold with both simplicity and nuance. The French composer’s first and most celebrated foray into the world of American jazz – the Golliwog’s Cakewalk – was rather robust in approach, yet never failed to underline the work’s essential humour, most easily heard in its ironic parody of the opening of Wagner’s influential opera Tristan and Isolde.
The recital concluded with two works by Isaac Albeniz, one of the Spanish triumvirate that included Enrique Granados and Manuel de Falla, who collectively helped promulgate the allure of Iberian culture beyond the Pyrenees. Freire’s multi-hued textures and unwavering control of contrapuntal lines perfectly captured the contemplative atmosphere of Evocación – the opening work of Albeniz’ opus magnum Iberia – and the more spirited dance world of the jota-infused Navarra, a work that almost made its way into Iberia, but was ultimately to remain unfinished at the composer’s death.
An utterly seductive encore of Albeniz’ popular tango (á la Godowsky) was followed by one of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s best known Lyric Pieces, an exuberant, brightly-paced Wedding Day at Troldhaugen.
Freire is a pianist who lets the music speak for itself. Quietly reposeful at the piano, he sits and delivers with the unflagging taste and assured control that one always hopes to hear from a true maestro of the piano. In every sense this Great Performers recital lived up to its promise. It augurs well for future 2018 GP programs that include singers Measha Brueggergosman, Thomas Hampson and Stuart Skelton and pianists Leslie Howard and MRC favourite Paul Lewis. Nelson Freire performs Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Gala Opening Concert this Saturday night, March 3 at Hamer Hall.
Glenn Riddle heard Nelson Freire perform at the Melbourne Recital Centre. Monday, February 26, 2018