While Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire, who died at the age of 77, was a musician of the highest caliber, it was decades before his talent became widely appreciated. He made his debut in London and other European capitals as early as 1968, and went on to record with leading orchestras under the direction of conductors such as Kurt Masur and David Zinman.
These recordings culminated in Brahms’ two piano concertos with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Chailly (2006) for Decca. His late debut at the BBC Proms had taken place the year before in the second concerto, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Ilan Volkov.
However, it took until 2014, and Freire’s 70th birthday, for many listeners to realize what they were missing, when a compilation of radio cassettes – six works for piano and orchestra, including the first concerto by Chopin and the third by Rachmaninoff – was released on two CDs. for Decca. The same occasion provoked the reissue of his Columbia LP Shows on seven Sony CDs. In 2019, he was honored for Lifetime Achievement at the International Classical Music Awards.
Many became aware of Freire’s exceptional artistry through his partnership with fellow South American pianist, Argentina’s Martha Argerich, with whom he toured and recorded extensively for many years, including one 2009 Salzburg Festival live recital. Freire was 15 when they met – Argerich a few years older – and the two became lifelong friends. Hearing these two keyboard geniuses weave their magic into the piano duo’s repertoire was an experience that is not easy to forget. Second Suite for two pianos by Rachmaninoff, Variations St Antoine by Brahms, Ravel’s Waltz and the Variations on a Theme of Lutoslawski by Paganini were among the works to which they brought their combined talents.
Freire’s reluctance to come forward has undoubtedly resulted in a less stellar career than it might have otherwise. But that was the nature of man: humble, questioning, introspective. His style of play was low-key but quite distinctive. While he was ready to take some latitude with the rhythms (especially in Chopin) it was never attention seeking effect. His tone was soft but bright; capable of extraordinary delicacy in, say, a Chopin Nocturne, he was also able to get rid of Totentanz by Liszt with a thrilling bravery and an amplitude of sonority all the more exhilarating as it is unexpected. At Brahms Piano Sonata No.3 in F minor, the space and depth of tone could almost persuade the listener that four hands were in play, but as in the most virtuoso Chopin Studies, cascading harmonies with a strange blend of power and intimacy.
The award-winning Brahms with Chailly, and indeed other muscular concertos like those of Liszt or Rachmaninoff, have never been the booming and devastating affairs that they can so easily be in other hands: Freire has instead concerned with exploring their inner world.
Freire, the youngest of five children, was born in Boa Esperança in the state of Minas Gerais. His mother was a teacher and his father a pharmacist who changed his profession to work in a bank in Rio de Janeiro, in order to allow Nelson to study there with Nise Obino, a pupil of the famous teacher Lucia Branco, who in turn had was trained by a pupil of Liszt. After giving his first public performance at the age of four, he finished seventh at the International Competition in Rio de Janeiro at the age of 13, a success which allowed him to study with Bruno Seidlhofer in Vienna.
He went on to win the Vianna da Motta Prize in Lisbon and the Dinu Lipatti Medal in London. After his European debut in 1968, he went to the United States in 1969 – performing with the New York Philharmonic and on a tour of the Royal Philharmonic under the direction of Rudolf Kempe – and from there to Israel in 1970 and the year next in Japan.
With his firmly established career, he has performed around the world with orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra. Initially, he recorded for CBS, Philips and Deutsche Grammophon. From 2001 he recorded exclusively for Decca in a repertoire including Beethoven, Chopin, Bach, Schumann, Debussy and Liszt, as well as Brahms concertos. In 2010, he recorded the complete Nocturnes de Chopin and a recital album for them. The following year, on the occasion of Liszt’s bicentenary, he produced a recital album entitled Harmonies du Soir.
For Decca, he also recorded a disc of music by his compatriot Heitor Villa-Lobos and other Brazilian composers. To his recording producer, Dominic Fyfe, Freire was “the consummate recording artist, more meticulously prepared for the studio than almost any artist I’ve met and his less edited recordings.”
Despite the intense focus and sophistication of his piano, Freire had other enthusiasms in life. The cinema he describes as his “second passion”, with a particular interest in the film noir of the 40s and 50s. Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang were among his favorite directors. He also had a penchant for jazz, which he was introduced to by Argerich, indulging in a particular fascination with Ella Fitzgerald, and admiring the joy displayed on the piano by Errol Garner.
He is survived by a brother, Nirval.