LENOX >> Nelson Freire is a pianist, not a teacher, but his Tanglewood recital Wednesday night intentionally or unintentionally taught a lesson, putting Brahms' and Chopin's third sonatas on the same program.
The two pieces are almost opposites. The Brahms sonata, from early in his life, is craggy, austere, almost bleak as he embarks on a synthesis of classical and romantic tendencies. Chopin, having synthesized his art in one of his last pieces, is lyrical and rhapsodic with almost classical restraint.
Young pianists often wow you with their technical prowess, even when they're not consciously flaunting it (Lang Lang, for example, flaunts). At 71, and walking to the piano a bit haltingly, the Brazilian Freire has nothing to prove. His playing in the two sonatas and two shorter selections had an inner calm that lay beyond the technical mastery he undemonstratively employed.
Freire led off a parade of four pianists to appear at Tanglewood in five successive days. The Canadian Marc-Andre Hamelin, substituting for Daniil Trifonov, was to give a recital last night. Yefim Bronfman, Ingrid Fliter (also replacing Trifonov) and Freire will follow in the weekend's Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts.
Fliter, who is Argentinian, is an interesting debut artist. Known for her Chopin, she will take over his previously scheduled Piano Concerto No.2.
Brahms' third sonata, the product of a 20-year-old, was the last in the form that he would ever write. Later in life, he turned to shorter forms such as the intermezzo and ballade, which distilled the granite-like quality of the sonatas into a gentler expressivity. (You can also hear the difference in the progression from his first to second piano concerto.)
Though the early sonatas can remain forbidding, Freire made no excuses for the complexity of the third. The Liszt-like swagger remained but it was tempered by the moments of lyricism. He lowered the musical temperature in the Chopin sonata, whose soaring melodies enjoyed an understated elegance. He was especially effective in using rhythm to subtly underscore emotion.
For contrast, Freire preceded the Brahms with three Bach transcriptions — two by Busoni, one of which bristled with the contrapuntal density of his own music. The third transcription was by Myra Hess.
Debussy's "Children's Corner" Suite, composed for his 5-year-old daughter, preceded the Chopin. Freire told the six little tales like a father to his child. Whimsy and irony deliciously spiced the narration.