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Nelson Freire (piano)
rec. 2019, Friedrich-Ebert Halle, Hamburg-Harburg
Notes in English, French and German
DECCA 485 0153 [76:14]

This album is released to celebrate Nelson Freire's 75th birthday and a career spanning 70 years – he gave his first recital at the age of five in his hometown of Boa Esperança. His choice of repertoire reflects the fact that he is a pianist who reaches back to the Golden Age: the notes mention Gieseking (Grieg Lyric pieces), Moiseiwitsch (Rachmaninov Préludes) and Rubinstein (Spanish repertoire). There is also a nod to the celebrated Brazilian pianist Guiomar Novaes, whose recording of Chopin's F minor Concerto was considered by Freire to be an ideal to strive for; she recorded several of the works on this disc on 78s – the Paderewski and Godowsky transcriptions for instance.

There is a logical grouping here. Short baroque dances, Polish composers, Grieg pieces, Russian repertoire and Spanish repertoire. He opens with Sgambati's famous transcription of Gluck's Dance of the blessed spirits with a beautifully projected melody. The Hornpipe is jaunty and though the Scarlatti Sonatas are well executed they lack the sparkle that Horowitz would bring to these miniatures.

The Paderewski Nocturne, nostalgic and sentimental, is a lovely encore (as I have discovered for myself) and Freire shapes it nicely, though some might find his habit of disjointing the hands, right before the left à la Paderewski a little disconcerting; this is also apparent in other melodic items. He is unflappable in the complexities of the Godowsky transcription of Richard Strauss's Ständchen, in a performance that yields nothing to his previous recorded version of over thirty years before. The other item in this grouping is a less obvious encore: the first of Stojowski's set of Aspirations, Vers l'azur is certainly impressive as it grows from a simple melody to the grand passion of the central climatic outpourings, keyboard-spanning dizzying webs of chromatic figuration which slowly die down to a tranquil conclusion. Its language is a mixture of late Romantic Russians, the mid-European pianist composers, including his mentor Paderewski, and the French Impressionists and is one of those pieces whose appeal is not immediate but rewards better acquaintance.

Some of the Grieg items work very well - To Spring or Wedding day at Troldhaugen, for instance. Others are less successful; the berceuse from op38 sounds rather perfunctory at times and some of the flutters of the Little bird feel pushed on so that the gentle dance pulse is a little strained. I would also have asked for more dynamic contrast. The Russian section opens with Anton Rubinstein's once ubiquitous Melody in F, not one of my favourite pieces but deliciously executed here. The Préludes too are enjoyable though I wonder whether the chords around the big melody at the centre of the B minor prélude are too obtrusive. Listen to Moiseiwitsch here and the melody rings out like bells over the present but accompanying chords. The Fantastic dances are puckish and lyrical by turns.

As for the Spaniards, they have great warmth but perhaps not a huge amount of intimacy. Freire seldom seems to want to linger and in the Mompou the languid melody for all its charm feels a little rushed (listen to the gloriously delicate recording of Novaes for an example of how to judge this. Review). Ending the recital is the treacherous Navarra and Freire is in his element – the years seem to fall from him as he fills the air with the sounds of festival and revelry: a fitting encore.

Overall, I found this an enjoyable disc and it is worth the asking price if the well-chosen selection appeals. Individually, I find that the pianists to whom Freire pays homage bring more personality to this music and one can find good modern examples as well; listen to Jonathan Plowright in the Stojowski (Review) or the Paderewski (Warner Classics 9578756).

The sound is clear and immediate – perhaps a little too immediate as everything melodic and all accompanying features are in close focus. The presentation is good; the booklet includes an essay about the Freire and there is a selection of photos through the years.

This is an enjoyable selection of pieces and performances but Freire doesn't always hit the spot.

Rob Challinor

Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
arr. Giovanni SGAMBATI (1841-1914)
Mélodie – Dance of the blessed spirits (1774) [3:05]
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Hornpipe in E minor – the old Bachelor (1691) [0:47]
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Sonata in D minor Kk.64 [1:32]
Sonata in B minor Kk.377 [2:32]
Zygmunt STOJOWSKI (1869-1946)
Vers l'azur from Aspirations op.39 No. 1 (1914) [3:26]
Ignacy Jan PADEREWSKI (1860-1941)
Nocturne from Miscellanea op.16 no.4 (c1890-91) [3:59]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
arr. Leopold GODOWSKY (1870-1938)
Ständchen (1887) [2:34]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Lyric pieces
Bk.1 Arietta op.12 no.1 (1866-67) [1:07]
Bk.1 Waltz op.12.no.2 [1:38]
Bk.1 Popular melody [1:20]
Bk.2 Berceuse op.38 no.1 (1883) [2:15]
Bk.3 Solitary traveller op.43 no.2 (1886) [1:38]
Bk.3 Little bird op.43 no.4 [1:38]
Bk.3 To Spring op.43 no.6 [2:46]
Bk.4 Halling op.47 no.4 (1885-88) [1:14]
Bk.5 A shepherd boy op.54 no.1 (1891) [3:30]
Bk.8 Wedding day at Troldhaugen op.65 no.6 (1896) [5:11]
Bk.9 At your feet op.68 no.3 (1898) [2:42]
Bk.9 At the cradle op.68 no.5 [2:22]
Anton RUBINSTEIN (1829-1894)
Mélodie in F (c.1852) [3:22]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1871-1915)
Poème in F sharp major op.32 no.1 (1903) [2:44]
Sergey RACHAMNINOV (1873-1943)
Prelude in b minor op.32 no.10 (1910) [5:13]
Prelude in G sharp minor op.32 no.12 [2:29]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Three Fantastic Dances op.5 (1922) [3:26]
Enrique GRANADOS (1867-1916)
Quejas, ó la Maja y el Ruiseñor – Goyescas No.4 (1911) [4:49]
Federico MOMPOU (1893-1987)
Jeunes filles au jardin (1915-18) [2:00]
Isaac ALBÉNIZ (1860-1909)
transcribed by Leopold GODOWSKY
Tango in D major (1890) [2:52]
Navarra [4:43]
completed by Déodat de SÉVERAC (1872-1921)

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