Nelson Freire delivers refined passion in a varied and intimate program
No one will ever accuse Nelson Freire of being showy.
He doesn’t have the emotive facial expressions of a Lang Lang or the gravity-defying antics of a Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. And yet on Wednesday, as he walked onto the stage of Alice Tully Hall in traditional evening attire (a rare sight these days) there were more than a few illicit camera flashes. There is tremendous excitement when Freire performs, and it has everything to do with his artistry.
None of the repertoire he played on this recital is particularly flashy—these pieces do not call for eye-popping, virtuosic technical proficiency. The require instead grace, intelligence, and sensitivity, qualities which Freire has to spare.
He opened with Bach, the Organ Prelude in G minor, BWV 535. Freire was of course playing a transcription, and he owned that fully: he did not try to pretend he was playing an organ, but instead approached it as a piece written for this keyboard, with hard pedal tones in the left hand and limpid descants in the right.
In the well-known Myra Hess transcription Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, from the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, his playing was wonderfully tender, producing just enough sound to fill the hall, but not a decibel more. With such a familiar piece, it can be tempting to throw in a curveball or two, but Freire was not afraid to play it straight—he gave it a simple, elegant, but nonetheless joyful performance.
In the Brahms Klavierstücke, op. 119, the pianist was unabashedly Romantic. The first Intermezzo was lyrical and sentimental as Freire caressed the piece’s falling lines. The second Intermezzo was reserved but affecting, while the third was calmly pensive. At times Freire’s playing seems narrow, but his small scale welcomes the listener with arresting intimacy. In the Rhapsody, by contrast, he led us on a boisterous romp.
The Visions fugitives is not among Prokofiev’s most clashing works, but in the context of what had come before, Freire’s eight selections from the cycle provided just enough contrast to sound “edgy.” The “Pittoresco (Arpa)” played to his strengths, giving him a chance to range through a variety of colors in relative stillness, but changed pace delightfully in “Ridicolosamente” and “Con vivacità,” allowing himself to be momentarily silly. He ended with a haunting “Poetico,” floating through Prokofiev’s crushed intervals.
On his third curtain-call before intermission, Freire sat down as though to play an encore, and proceeded to perform what was listed in the program as the opener for the second half. In a selection from Enrique Granados’s Goyescas, “Quejas, o La maja y el ruiseñor,” he conveyed the still sadness of the maid’s complaint, growing organically into raging passion. The nightingale’s trilling response sparkled.
Chopin’s F-minor Ballade, which opened the reorganized second half, was the closest that Freire came to “flashy” on this program. It begins in placid nostalgia, eventually exploding into fury, but even in the frenetic sections the fireworks were secondary, as the pianist kept his conviction and sense of direction while eschewing mere bluster.
Freire’s performance of the Berceuse in D-flat major was simply astonishing, a vision of absolute serenity. He gave a spacious and blooming Op. 53 Polonaise, while conjuring up some of the wit that he sprinkled here and there in the Prokofiev.
The audience received an extra bit of Chopin as an encore: a warm and lovely Nocturne in D-flat major, op. 27 no. 2. His second encore, Villa-Lobos’s Lenda do Cabloca, felt just the slightest bit staid, but nonetheless brimmed with color.
The next concert in Lincoln Center’s “Great Performers” series on December 9 will feature harpist Bridget Kibbey and Dianne Berkun-Menaker’s Brooklyn Youth Chorus performing Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. lcgreatperformers.org