» Archive for November, 2004

F. Chopin: Etudes Op. 25 – Nelson Freire

Saturday, November 20th, 2004 by Martin Hester


NELSON FREIRE: Chopin – Piano Sonata No.3,  12 Études op.25, 3 Nouvelles Études
Recorded in 2002. Decca #02894702882

Nelson Freire
Last time I wrote about Chopin and the Sonata No.3, so this time is about the artist and the 12 studies opus 25.

There is a fine documentary film about Nelson Freire, made by João Moreira Salles. It is available on DVD, with extras which are worth having, because they include the complete execution of Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto. The film recounts the essence of Nelson’s trajectory, from the “interior” of Minas Gerais (he was born in Bôa Esperança in 1944) to the principal concert halls of the world. His musical gift was evident as early as three years old, and at six his parents made the momentous decision to move to Rio so that his talent could be nurtured and supported. He was indeed a prodigy, performing major musical works at a very young age, but due to fine teaching from Nise Obino (a lady of much personality) and Lúcia Branco, he developed the fine technique, the muscular strength and the repertoire necessary to being a concert pianist. (Today, one of the delights of a Nelson concert is to see his erect stance at the piano, and the fluid, relaxed movements of his hands and wrists – so different from the ugly posture of some pianists). At fifteen Nelson went to study in Vienna with Bruno Seidlhofer, and his life-long friendship with Martha Argerich dates from this time. Since his late teens, his international career has taken him all over – to Europe and North America particularly – and he has a house in Paris, as well as in Rio de Janeiro. (For further details, check out the Radio MEC series of interviews with Nelson at 11am on Sundays).

Of course, one does not become an international star without being an exceptional performer, and I came to appreciate more what this means because many years ago, he was a frequent visitor to our house. He can play the most demanding music (in terms of technical skill) and has a prodigious musical memory. He can sight-read difficult stuff without effort, and remember it all almost immediately.

But at the top of the pianistic ladders there are a surprising number of pianists who can play very difficult music. One can describe the way they play, but it is a bit meaningless to compare them, and make claims like “among the top few in the world” or whatever the publicists wish. Nelson himself shuns this kind of celebrity-plugging, rather seeking to express the essence of the music with care and devotion. To me, Nelson’s strengths are in the interpretation of the Romantics – Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, Rachmaninov and others, where there are singing melodies, lots of runs, lots of notes, strong playing but also moments of stillness. I find also that Nelson has many qualities in common with another outstanding Brazilian pianist – Guimar Novaes (1894-1979), who played with astonishing naturalness and fluency. One of her particular abilities was to make the touch in some fingers stronger and more legato than other fingers on the same hand – meaning she could make little patterns or melodies suddenly emerge, where other pianists found nothing. In this respect, Nelson is her heir, and some of the most magic moments in his playing are indeed those in which melodies quietly emerge from delicate accompaniments. In the film, there is a revealing sequence on just this point, when Nelson plays to the interviewer a CD of Guiomar playing a little melody of Gluck – showing his emotion at its beauty – and then cuts to a concert where Nelson himself plays it, moving his audience in the same way.

The film Nelson Freire was made over a two-year period, during which the director slowly sought to come closer to the essence of his subject. He ended up with a delicate, sensitive portrayal – of a pianist who has as much trouble expressing himself in words as he has facility in expressing himself through the piano.

John Eliot Gardner, the English conductor, remarked in an interview that the difficult years in an artist’s career were the middle ones. At the beginning it is oba-oba, a new talent – how marvellous! Then the middle period when your work may be criticized, even rejected, and competition is strong. But then there comes a turning point when respect and appreciation begin to outweigh any perceived shortcoming, and people realize they should value what is there, and the artistic maturity. This realisation appears to be happening now with Nelson, at least in Brazil – his ability to draw huge audiences in Rio and São Paulo is evidence enough!

12 Études op.25
According to the sleeve notes, “these Études remain the pianist’s Parnassus” – to conquer them is perhaps to find the fount of poetic inspiration! Studies by other composers are sometimes horribly dull exercises in torture, because they are meant to work on particular difficulties of execution. However, these Studies of Chopin’s are beautiful and inspired, as well as being technically very difficult.

They start off in a peaceful mood, No.1 with melodies emerging gently from a rippling plethora of notes, while No.2 sounds like a humming bird flitting from flower to flower. Numbers 3 to 6 sound contented -chords, jumps, ever so light – while 6 is an exercise in thirds (try moving in pairs in rapid succession your index and fourth, then third and fifth fingers, to get an idea of how tricky this is). The lovely duet of No.7 is interrupted in the middle by a suggestion of frustration, which is then overcome in 8 (running sixths) and 9, which is light and dancing. But then No.10 – octaves in both hands – is agonized, dramatic, while No.11, after a simple statement of the theme, explodes in despair and frustration. No. 12 is big arpeggios rolling up and down the piano, stormy and ominous, over a bass theme – but which ends strongly, without rancour. I listen to these last three with a sense of awe – how is it possible for someone to write such music, and for someone to play with such brilliance and perfection?

But the high point for me is the interlude in the middle of No.5 – the phrasing of the melody in the left hand while the right cascades lightly up and down – a little slice of pure beauty.

Good listening!