Nelson Freire at 75

Gramophone Fri 18th October 2019

An interview to mark the great Brazilian pianist's 75th birthday

Nelson Freire celebrates his 75th birthday on October 18. He was a member of the jury for the piano category at this year’s International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow where Gramophone’s James Jolly, who was introducing those piano rounds for Medici TV, caught up with him to talk about his new Decca album ‘Encores’, released to mark this important birthday.

NF: Do you know, I don’t listen to my records: not during, not after! I have to admit that making record is not my favourite sport. But as long as people like them I’ll keep making them!

JJ: You started playing very young …

NF: Since I was a kid, I always liked to play the piano. Yes, I started very young, but I only practised two hours a day with weekends off. And during my practice, when I reached the end of something and wanted a break, I used to have these albums of little pieces and I would amuse myself by playing them. Later on, when I’d discovered all those Golden Age pianists, which I love very much, it was wonderful to discover that they used to play these same pieces – which seldom get played nowadays. I was very happy. My mother would catch me playing them and tell me I had to practise! It became sort of forbidden to play them. So, I’ve gathered together all the pieces that my favourite pianists would play – Rachmaninov, Josef Hofmann, Guiomar Novaes, Walter Gieseking – they all played these little pieces. They would fit a 78 side perfectly. But then piano programmes would often be in three parts (I’m so old that I still did some three-part programmes myself when I was a child!). And these short pieces would fall into the third part of the programme. Nowadays, the third part has disappeared and so it’s hard to fit them in. 

JJ: How did you programme 'Encores'?

NF: Well, every piece reminds me of a different pianist. The Purcell Hornpipe was a Guiomar Novaes favourite. She came back to London in 1967 where she inaugurated the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and she did the Hornpipe as an encore. She was my favourite pianist! She was rarely filmed so people don’t know what she was like when she played, but to see her play was incredible. On YouTube you can find her playing some Chopin preludes on Human Rights Day Concert at the United Nations in 1963. You should see it, it’s really wonderful. The Gluck Melodie I’ve played for a long time. Actually, whenever I play a concerto with Valery Gergiev - and we’ve worked together a lot - he will never leave the stage until I play the Gluck. ‘I’m waiting, I’m waiting’ he always says.

JJ: And it seems that these pieces are emerging from the shadows occasionally once more. 

NF: Yes, it’s good that a younger generation of pianists is playing them once again.  Like the Godowsky-Strauss Ständchen – it’s one of the finest 78 recordings of Guimoar Novaes, done in the 1920s for RCA. It’s playing of such poetry, with a crystalline quality. You must hear it! And the Lyric Pieces of Grieg I’ve loved ever since hearing the Gieseking recording. 

JJ: And there’s also Gilels’s much later recording – I guess we should mention that as we’re in Moscow! 

NF: Yes, he was a wonderful pianist also. I liked him so much. 

JJ: This week we’re both spending many hours in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory and I really can feel that sense of tradition in that building. 

NF: Exactly!

JJ: And we even have Anton Rubinstein looking down on us from his portrait … 

NF: And I’ve included his Melody, which was recorded by Hofmann, on this new recording. It was a very popular piece at one time. Now nobody plays it any more. 

JJ: I remember having a cup of tea with Shura Cherkassky at his apartment in London many years again, and he told a wonderful anecdote about the time he thought he might bring the Rubinstein Melody back into his recitals. But he didn’t have the music, so he went along to Chappell’s in Bond Street and asked for Rubinstein’s Melody in F. To which they replied by asking him if he’d like the simplified fingering version! 

NF [laughing[: Yes, they used to do that. Also in simplified keys too! Actually, there’s a wonderful performance by Cherkassky of the Melody on YouTube. Really wonderful.

JJ: And you’ve included a couple of Rachmaninov preludes.

NF: I played those preludes when I was 11 in a recital – in one of those three parters! Rachmaninov is for me is the god of piano composers.

JJ: We’re hearing a lot of Tchaikovsky piano music as part of the competition, and the effect on the audience is remarkable. 

NF: Yes, I was here eight years ago and I was struck by so many pieces that I’d never heard before. They are good!

JJ: And the Albéniz pieces?

NF: Navarra, of course, was a Rubinstein favourite. He played it often, and wonderfully, and the Tango was also recorded by Novaes in the 1920s. 

JJ: Who did you hear when you were young? 

NF: Unfortunately it was before I was born that Brazil used to be a very visited country: Paderewski, Friedman, Hoffman, Rubinstein all came. Everyone came. I heard Solomon and much later Rubinstein in New York. 

JJ: What was Solomon like?

NF: I was very young, so don’t remember too much, but I do remember my teacher telling me to pay attention to Solomon’s pedalling – ‘He’s the best!’ – and I must admit I was quite impressed! 

JJ: And you’ve included the Three Fantastic Dances, Op 5 of Shostakovich. 

NF: These I also played when I was very young - at my first recital in Rio when I was studying with my teachers Lucia Branco and Nise Obino. They always gave me a wide repertoire, from different periods, so I could achieve different styles. And in that programme, I remember, I played the Mozart F major Sonata and the Shostakovich dances.

JK: And the Scriabin Poème?

NF: That was a Horowitz speciality! Many of these pieces were ones I used to 'dream around'. They’re difficult to record because I used to play them mainly for myself, just for pleasure. 

JJ: It must be nice to relax into these pieces when you’ve got the ‘serious’ stuff out of the way. 

NF: Yes, it’s different. They sound different, and of course they need to! 

JJ: Do you have birthday celebrations planned? 

NF: Not really, though but I’m doing a few concerts in Brazil. Actually, I’m playing in the State of Minas Gerais where I was born. I gave a recital there when I was 10 and they wanted to make a celebration around my birthday. So, I had the nice idea to play exactly the same programme as when I was 10! So, it’s Beethoven, Sonata Op 10 No 1, Schumann Kinderszenen, the Chopin C sharp minor Polonaise, Op 26, and some Villa-Lobos and a funny piece called Brazilian Rhapsody by Luis Levy, a Romantic Brazilian composer and very Liszt-like. I’ve not played it since I was 10! I keep thinking ‘How did I play that when I was 10? It’s really quite difficult!’ 

JJ: You mentioned Liszt and you have a direct link back to him. 

NF: Yes, and I’m very proud of it. My teacher Lucia Branco studied for four years with Arthur de Greef, a Belgian pianist, and he studied with Liszt. And she had some scores that had markings that came directly from Liszt - they were very interesting.

JJ: Well, I’m looking forward to hearing the album. 

NF: I hope you like it because these are pieces that I like to play for my own pleasure. You know, it was very hard to find a title but we settled on ‘Encores’ which is simple and direct. 

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