Nelson Freire: Brahms
Brahms’s Third Sonata has been a calling card for Nelson Freire since the earliest days – for his farewell recital in Rio de Janeiro aged 14 and for his debut recital LP for CBS aged 22. And now, 50 years after that release, he has returned to the piece. Were Freire your average kind of pianist (ludicrous notion though that is), you might anticipate that the 72-year-old would display a diminution of technical aplomb but an increase in gravitas and depth. Not a bit of it – what’s interesting is how fundamentally similar these readings are. Returning to his earlier recording, you’re struck anew at its maturity, with its combination of nobility and an unerring sense of pacing. The only major difference in timings is because in the first movement he now observes the exposition repeat.
Freire’s sound has always been a thing of wonder: even at full volume and full tilt there’s no hint of percussiveness in his tone – just sample the development of the first movement; or the way the melody of the intermezzo-like slow movement is plucked almost insouciantly out of the texture (where the earlier version was elegant, this is utterly luminous). If the dizzy unpredictability of the finale is just a shade more unhinged in 1967, this newer one has lost nothing in playfulness. Freire’s zest for this piece is palpably undimmed and what a joy it is.
He follows the sonata with a bouquet of Brahms’s later pieces. From Op 76, he relishes the ethereal opening of No 3 (less free with rubato than the devilishly luxuriant Volodos) and finds a profundity to the songful No 4. That’s a quality he reveals in the second of the Op 117 pieces, too, while the presto Capriccio that opens Op 116 has energy without ever seeming rushed, Freire voicing Brahms’s rich textures with an easeful mastery.
Highlights are many – the regret-filled duet of the middle section of Op 118 No 2 or the way he brings to such a quiet close the Ballade, Op 118 No 3. He is different in his approach from Volodos in Op 118 but no less compelling. I hope the inclusion of the final works, Op 119, is not an indication that Freire is done with this composer: they are touched everywhere with an ineluctable beauty without the slightest degree of self-consciousness. No 1 draws you in, unfolding with complete naturalness, spinning lines out of air, while the chattering No 3 is superbly vivid. Freire gives No 4 not only strength and fervency but an almost symphonic splendour in its colouring, the inner section having an easeful quality before being quickly banished. By way of an encore, we get a deliciously poised reading of the Waltz, Op 39 No 15. Enough adjectives. Go and buy it, and set it on your shelves next to Volodos.