Theatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro
Saturday, July 22nd, 2018
Orquestra Sinfônica do Theatro Municipal
Marcelo Lehninger, conductor
Nelson Freire, piano
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Eugen Onegin – Polonaise
Concerto no. 2 for piano and orchestra in F minor, op.21
Concerto no. 2 for piano and orchestra in B flat major, op.83
This is neither an article for Architectural Digest, nor a take on one of GBShaw’s infamous lines – when he received a card saying “Lady So-and-So, at home, Thursday….,1925”, he gave a simple reply:”George Bernard Shaw, likewise”. I also thought of calling this article “The Return of the Prodigal Son”, which would have made a great title, but is simply not true.
In fact, Nelson Freire lives in Rio de Janeiro, although, as most musicians, he is mainly on the road (or rather, in the air) and plays here once or twice a year. He is a sort of national hero, to the happy few who enjoy classical music, as is cellist Antonio Meneses. Both have made huge names for themselves in the international musical establishment, where Brazilian musicians are scarce. In the past, we had Guiomar Novaes and Magdalena Tagliaferro and Bidú Sayão, three formidable artists. Nowadays, apart from Freire and Meneses, we have another Met star, Paulo Szot. Still, Brazilian classical musicians who have “made it” are rare. In pop music, it’s a whole different story, thanks to samba and bossa nova, and to musicians and lyricists like Tom Jobim, João Gilberto and Vinicius de Moraes, for instance, who have influenced jazz and pop all over the world.
But last night we were back at the splendid Theatro Municipal for a musical happening, as Nelson Freire was going to treat us not to one concerto, but two – and what concertos! Chopin’s and Brahms’s second concertos, two superb examples of Romanticism, although I would venture to say the Brahms is by far the most important of the two. It was fitting that the Chopin should be a sort of apéritif, served after the ravishing Polonaise from act III of Eugen Onegin. The Brahm’s had the whole second part of the concert to itself.
A short digression to stress a point I would like to make. I am now a member of a Facebook group (yes, Violetta da Gamba has come a long way since her Cremona days) called PCME – Pretentious Classical Music Elitists. Apart from some fun moments, the group also provides very irritating ones, such as the “best” mania: who do you think is the best pianist, violinist, composer, cellist, conductor, stagehand, etc. etc. in the world today, yesterday and even tomorrow. It is, in my opinion, extremely silly to label any artist or any human being, for that matter, as “the best”. Now to the point: I once ventured to criticize Nelson Freire’s Mozart, when he played one of his concertos at the Mostly Mozart Festival (check my article “Mostly Mozart, Mostly Disappointing”, if you like.) Oh my, the screams of lèse-majesté! But, and this is the point in question, no one is the best in everything.
Back to our sheep, as the French would say. As disappointed I was that summer evening with Freire’s Mozart, I was blown away with most of his Chopin and with his Brahms this time. Unfortunately, one had to make a tremendous effort to obliterate the very pedestrian orchestra and rather metronomic conductor. The accompaniment was disastrous, with particularly hoarse brasses, which is definitely a terrible shortcoming when playing Brahms. Enough said about what cannot be remedied. Freire was probably taken aback in the first movement of Chopin, although he must have rehearsed and therefore knew what was coming, as it was slightly unsteady. But then came the Larghetto in which the orchestra is very discreet, leaving space for Freire to show us the full extent of his lyricism, the exquisite phrasing, the crystalline pianissimi, the subdued crescendi, the sweetness, the drama, what can I say? From then on, it was all breathtaking, the Allegro of the Chopin a tranquil joy, which took me back to my teen years and my fascination with King Vidor’s rendition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, with the ravishing Audrey Hepburn, the very handsome Mel Ferrer and the extraordinarily sensitive Henry Fonda as Pierre, by far the best performance of the whole movie. Nino Rota’s score has little to do with Chopin, but then there is that gorgeous waltz, to which Natasha and André’s ill-fated romance first blossoms.
Intermission, and then Brahms! Probably one of the most beautiful concertos of the repertoire. Or am I just drawn to it as I am to all of Brahms’s works for the glorious parts he gives the cello? Anyway, the opening was marred by the mediocre horns, so unfitting for Freire’s magnificently subtle entrance, followed by the forceful chords. The concerto is mesmerizing, you soak up every note and Nelson Freire definitely gives you food for soul and thought. The orchestration, when the orchestra it is up to its task, is spine-tingling. You are carried away to far out regions and wish you need never come back. Freire’s performance was everything one can expect and wish for, with special mention to the so, so beautiful pick-up of the opening cello and strings in the Andante; the alternation of sheer passionate strength and sweet pianissimi in the Allegro Apassionato; the dancing playfulness in the Allegretto grazioso, in which, probably a very personal view which would irk most musicologists, I sense a foretelling of Shostakovitch.
However disappointing the accompaniment, this was indeed a very rare treat, and a master-class. Freire is at his best in the great Romantic concertos, most especially in Schumann’s and in both of Brahms’s. I have always, in the depth of my feelings, paired him with Clara Haskil in Schumann, although she was also a great interpreter of Mozart, which, in my opinion, Freire is not.
Encores are not the rule in concerts with orchestra, but who could resist the tsunami of applause? Not even Nelson Freire who gave us two encores, first a piece I didn’t recognize at all and then what I suspect was one of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, but he did not, unfortunately, reveal his secret.