Review: Nelson Freire at Melbourne Recital Centre

David Barmby

Dazzlingly fine technique along with true and freely expressive musicality at the Opening the Melbourne Recital Centre 2018 Great Performers Concert Series.
Review: Nelson Freire at Melbourne Recital Centre

Image: Nelson Freire via Melbourne Recital Centre.

Opening the Melbourne Recital Centre 2018 Great Performers Concert Series on Monday night was a distinguished concert pianist who unequivocally fulfils the title of the series.  Multi-award-winning Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire began playing piano some seventy years ago aged three.  Having recorded for most of the significant recording labels, he has now signed to Decca and his last two recordings of music by Brahms, the latest reviewed here, Nelson Freire Brahms, are highly valued with his Brahms concerto recordings with Riccardo Chailly a decade ago having been awarded Gramophone Magazine’s prestigious Recording of the Year.


There were a number of deeply satisfying aspects to this outstanding performance.  It was a genuine pleasure to attend a traditional piano recital, a concert format that seems increasingly rare.  But it was Freire’s dazzlingly fine technique along with true and freely expressive musicality that brought the greatest rewards on this occasion.  The concert opened with Mozart’s Piano Sonata No 11 in A, K331 Alla turca, a work that appeared on the program for Freire’s first juvenile public recital.  Robert Schumann’s late-Romantic, large-scale Fantasie in C major, Op 17 followed.  Two works by Chopin, his Impromptu No 2 in F sharp major, Op 3 and the Ballade No 3 in A flat major, Op 47 preceded a further two by Debussy, La plus que lente and Golliwogg’s Cakewalk from his Children’s Corner suite.  Finally we heard Spanish/Frenchman Isaac Albéniz’s Evocación in A flat from Iberia Book 1, capped off with the brilliant though problematic Navarra.

Perhaps one of the most treasured and well-known solo piano works of all time, Mozart’s 11th Sonata’s Andante grazioso with its simple theme and variations opened with a reassuring sense of proportion in its gentle duple timeFrom the opening bars there was a light-filled, articulate and carefully phrased musical conversation in place, its opening theme a gracious siciliana displaying all of the stillness, completeness and refinement of Classical form.  The well-articulated Alla turca, Allegretto (Rondo) emulating a Turkish Janissary band, in vogue at the time, had plenty of youthful punch and flare.  From this delicate Classical portrait we moved on to the vast and epic canvas by Schumann, very much the main course of this feast.  Dedicated to Franz Liszt who was one of the few pianists capable of managing its formidable technical demands, the work is regarded as one of the Schumann’s greatest achievements.  Imbued with the spirit of Beethoven with its sudden outbursts of temperament, the performance of the first movement amply fulfilled the score’s marking to be ‘utterly fantastically and passionately played; in the tone of a legend’The central movement’s resonant and expertly weighted majestic march was joyously realised and brimmed with impressive grandeur, its infamous coda of rapid skips in opposite directions brilliantly realised.  Dream-like and profound, the slow and meditative final movement provided a generous homage to Beethoven, touching on the sublime.

The two compositions by Chopin conveyed subtle and warm charm with a particularly pleasing, tender buoyant lilt to the third Ballade.  Debussy’s sophisticated if not louche waltz La plus que lente (literally ‘the more than slow’) was seductively ‘danced’ followed by a rigorous rag-time rendition of Golliwogg’s Cakewalk, the sixth movement of the Children’s Corner suite with its humorously flippant anti-Wagner Tristan und Isolde love-death leitmotif mocked in banjo-like accompaniment.  Freire reached his true element in the final two impressive works by Spanish/French composer Isaac Albéniz, the lush and verdant Evocación from Iberia, and Navarra, celebrating the northern Spanish landscape.  Left unfinished on the composer’s death and only recently completed by Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin it made a fine conclusion to this excellent recital with its sparkling ebullience.

Like a celebrated wine, maturity brought an unmistakably characteristic richness and presence to this notable performance.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5

Nelson Freire 
Part of series: Great Performers 2018

Nelson Freire (Brazil), piano
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Sonata No.11 in A, K.331
Robert Schumann
Fantasie in C, Op.17
Frédéric Chopin
Impromptu No.2, Op.36 in F#
Ballade No.3 Op.47 in A-flat
Claude Debussy
La plus que lente
Children’s Corner
6. Golliwog’s Cakewalk
Isaac Albéniz

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

David Barmby is former head of artistic planning of Musica Viva Australia, director of music at St James' Anglican Church, King Street, artistic administrator of Bach 2000 (Melbourne Festival), the Australian National Academy of Music and Melbourne Recital Centre.