At 72, Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire may not be a pianistic household name such as Martha Argerich, Evgeny Kissin or Murray Perahia, but his artistry is recognised as being of their ilk.
Freire’s sensitive interpretation of Robert Schumann’s piano concerto showed us why, achieving an ideal balance of elegant virtuosity and gentle contemplation. His tone was a thing of wonder: translucent, nuanced and focused.
The composer wrote the concerto for his pianist wife Clara, who requested a “big bravura piece”. In some ways he complied. Freire’s crystalline articulation and remarkable dexterity ensured the virtuosic passagework was executed with ease.
Elsewhere, Schumann focused on his trademark sense of tenderness and penchant for rhapsodic rumination. Here, Freire’s suave finesse came to the fore. His shapely phrasing, well-sustained pianissimo playing and exquisite lightness of touch realised the affettuoso quality in the opening movement and infused the slow movement with an appealing sense of grazioso.
Clara remarked about her husband’s concerto that “the piano is interwoven with the orchestra in the most delicate way”. Freire and the Sydney Symphony stressed the importance of this element. Freire’s intimate discourse with the cellos and woodwinds in the slow movement was a sophisticated and charming highlight.
Rachmaninoff’s second symphony is cut from vastly different cloth to Schumann’s concerto. It is an overtly impassioned, large-scale creation of late romanticism.
The Sydney Symphony delivered an outstanding performance of this work with Vladimir Ashkenazy in their 2007 Rachmaninoff Festival.
Conductor Marcelo Lehninger’s exhilarating account matched it in quality, conveying the symphony’s emotional power with immediacy and intensity.
Like Ashkenazy, Lehninger’s tempos were swift without seeming hard-driven. His judiciously employed doses of accelerando and rallentando and astute dynamic control sustained tension and momentum while investing the work with coruscating adrenalin rushes when needed.
The performers’ good balances and textural clarity were equally impressive, consistently revealing the intricate complexity of the orchestration. The well-integrated yet finely detailed orchestral sound was weighty and full-bodied without ever becoming stodgy.
Like Schubert and Dvorak, Rachmaninoff was a natural tunesmith and this symphony is littered with a profusion of inspired melodies. The orchestra’s expansive sweep and long-breathed phrasing realised the composer’s lyrical impulses with flair and warmth.
Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, which opened the concert, was slightly less successful. Although the performers’ speed and emphatic attack made a dramatic impact, they needed more rhythmic flexibility and driving urgency to create a convincing account.