Nelson Freire at Tanglewood: Third Sonatas, Early and Late

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Nelson Freire in Ozawa Hall. Photo Hilary Scott.
Nelson Freire in Ozawa Hall. Photo Hilary Scott.

Solo piano concert, Ozawa Hall on Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Bach – Three Chorale Transcriptions
Brahms – Piano Sonata no. 3 in F minor, op. 5
Debussy – Children’s Corner Suite
Chopin – Piano Sonata no. 3 in B minor, op. 58
Encore – Chopin, Mazurka in A minor, op. 17 no. 4

Nelson Freire is a past master in multiple senses. His virtues as a pianist have been well-known for decades. But his playing brings to us hints of older school virtuosity, not only of his own generation (including his friend and musical partner Martha Argerich) but of even earlier schools of pianists, including the Hoffmann-Friedman-Rachmaninoff generation. He shares with those legendary virtuosi not only a technique that barely recognizes technical difficulties, but also a kind of sprezzatura, a slightly off-handed way of tossing off passages, runs, glittering ornaments, and the rest of the grand pianistic arsenal (or clap-trap, depending on your point of view) that others have approached with either gritty determination or a show-off’s urge to impress. Freire’s musical priorities lie elsewhere, and as a listener you sense that territory lies in a vast color palette deployed with total control in the service of a large-scale musical architecture while preserving an in-the-moment spontaneity.

Freire’s choice of program revealed an unusual juxtaposition of Third Sonatas: those of Brahms (composed in 1853, when the composer was 20, i.e. a very early work) and Chopin (composed in 1844 when the composer was 35, i.e. quite a late work). I doubt if these two works often are heard on the same program. The Brahms often evokes gritty determination from its interpreters, that being part of the music’s personality. The composer clearly intended to mobilize all the registers of the piano in a grand orchestral way; it reminds us that the First Piano Concerto of only a few years later first appeared as a symphony before being recast to include the piano—for early Brahms, the distance between the two media of piano and orchestra was narrow. This sonata is part of a short list of early piano works that are separated from the rest of Brahms’ piano oeuvre by a number of years and quite a bit of stylistic growth. Great and impressive as this five-movement sonata is, there is a constant sense of the composer reaching for what is not quite there. The climax of the very romantic Andante reaches emotions of Wagnerian proportions that the later, more mature composer might have reduced to more modest dimensions commensurate with its surrounding materials. (Although he did not revise this work later, the contemporary Piano Trio in B major, op 8 was completely reworked by the older composer with the aim of achieving greater moderation and balance.)

Contrast that with Chopin’s superb and almost perfectly realized Third Piano Sonata, the work of a pianist who wrote (and thought) almost exclusively in terms of his own instrument. While Chopin’s work has an equally broad spectrum of colors, they are all the colors of the piano, and do not compel listeners to imagine other instruments. Perhaps his most serious and extended musical essay, this sonata is balanced and structurally satisfying. It has a reputation for including a very long first movement—I even heard one pianist omit it on the grounds that audiences did not have the patience to follow its form. This under-estimates audiences or the way Chopin’s structural logic compels attention; Freire omitted only the repeat of the long exposition, but I was left feeling like I wanted to hear it again. (Chopin clearly intended the repeat to be taken.) If Freire’s recording is any measure, the sonata lasts a healthy twenty-eight minutes, but it was a very eventful and rapidly moving time-span. Chopin’s concept of sonata form is more episodic than Beethoven’s and can feel like a series of short pieces strung together if played that way. Not the case here—Freire displayed the Ariadne golden thread that connected the themes and episodes through dynamic mood and color shifts, passing through cloudy, mysterious transitions into more brightly illuminated regions of lyricism, none more so than the beautifully singing nocturne at the heart of the slow movement, perhaps the heart of the entire work. But Freire gave both weight and panache to the finale, employing flexibility of tempo to give the music a depth and swagger that was breath-taking without becoming ostentatious; the pianist’s virtuosity always served a colorful, characterful purpose.

The rest of the program was also familiar material, but offered equally thought-provoking contrasts. The first half started with three Bach transcriptions, two by Busoni and one by Myra Hess, from organ originals. The program notes posited that these versions cannot be as colorful as the originals, but have the virtue of greater transparency and linear clarity. I take issues with both halves of this proposition, plausible as it may seem on the surface. If an organist wishes to achieve linear transparency, there are choices of stops readily available on almost any instrument to achieve that result. On the other hand, a master colorist at the piano keyboard can suggest worlds of colors that lie dormant under the keys, waiting to be elicited by masterful hands. As has already been indicated, Freire has such equipment, and there were always two, three, or more layers to these performances, each inhabiting its own part of the spectrum. This was deployed for the purpose of unspooling the flowing lines of Bach’s counterpoint, which, in these pieces, is layered so that the chorale sounds forth clearly against its flowing, rolling, or marching background. While in no way “authentic,” this was a wonderful way to experience Bach’s contrapuntal greatness from another angle.

In contrast, the second half began with Debussy’s “Children’s Corner Suite,” pieces which may seem too modest to appear in our modern recital world of blockbusters and philosophical treatises. Freire understood that this was the intimate corner of the program’s geometry, and the performances pulled the audience in, reducing the acoustic space between performer and listener. In common with other older players (Menachem Pressler comes to mind, as well as the older Horowitz) Freire commands the full range of quiet dynamics with a corresponding variety of articulations. “Serenade for the Doll,” “The Snow is Dancing,” “The Little Shepherd,” and “Steps in the Snow” are the quiet central sections, superficially simple but superbly nuanced and exquisitely realized by Freire.1

While every variety of touch and articulation were heard, it was also clear that the artist’s concerns were on structure and expression; the occasional smudged notes were irrelevant even though those used to squeaky clean CD’s had to get used to them. Missing was the obvious playing to the audience; this artist was engaged in a meditation with himself, with the composers, and with the past. That the relationship sought was one of great intimacy was signed and sealed by the choice and performance of the encore which bid us depart in peace and quiet. It was the audience’s privilege to have overheard him.

  1. Just as heavily filtered light coming through the stained glass in Chartres reveals a world of richly saturated colors, the spectrum of quiet dynamics in the hands of a master performer opens a world of piano colors to the attentive ear.
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