BRAHMS: Piano Sonata; Intermezzi; Capriccio; Ballade; Klavierstücke; Waltz – Nelson Freire, piano – Decca 

Nelson Freire plays BRAHMS = Piano Sonata No. 3 in f minor, Op. 5; Intermezzo in A-flat Major, Op. 76, No. 3; Intermezzo in B-flat Major, Op. 76, No. 4; Capriccio in d minor, Op. 116, No. 1; Intermezzo in E Major, Op. 116, No. 4; Intermezzo in b-flat minor, Op. 117, No. 2; Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2; Ballade in g minor, Op. 118, No. 3; 4 Klavierstücke, Op. 119; Waltz in A-flat Major, Op. 39. No. 15 – Nelson Freire, piano – Decca 483 2154, 73:14 (8/25/17) [Distr. by Universal] ****:

Nelson Freire’s historic reunion with the music of Brahms on disc marks a powerful, audacious occasion.

So far as recording history is concerned, Nelson Freire (b. 1944) returns to the Brahms 1853 f minor Sonata after 50 years, the year 1967 having marked his CBS exploration of this work’s large, romantic gestures. In this respect, Freire reminds me somewhat of Artur Rubinstein, who likewise revisited this grand canvas twice in his recording career.  The tumultuous first movement, Allegro maestoso, exploits constantly shifting rhythms amidst explosive, symphonic outbursts, from which a poignant melody in warm D-flat arises that will achieve even more luminosity in G-flat. The demands on the hands, such as rolling tenths, testify to the composer’s own digital breadth, not so far from that of Rachmaninov.  As in many pieces that invoke triumph over adversity, the last pages bask in F Major.

Brahms chose a deliberately poetic subject (in thirds) for his Andante second movement, a verse by Sternau that tells of “two hearts united in love/and hold each other in a blissful embrace.”  Set in A-flat Major with modulations into D-flat Major, the melody requires ben cantando or a songful top line under which pulsating and undulating figures appear. In the manner of Schumann, Brahms creates a series of sequential motions that alternate D-flat and E-flat, with a rhythmic shift that slips from the original 2/4 into 3/8.  Freire—like Jorge Bolet in live concert in Atlanta, years ago—celebrates the musing with ardent, lingering gestures, retaining their “strumming” or troubadour character even in moments of powerful crescendos, marked molto pesante and fortissimo.  At times, Freire’s pedal becomes obsessive, driving the passionate embrace forward to an Adagio of transparent softness, a ppp benediction or “plagal” cadence in the manner of an Amen. The f minor Scherzo flourishes a swaggering pomp and resolute confidence, brandishing a rolled chord and an arpeggio. The melodic, somewhat counter-theme appears in e-flat minor. Diminished sevenths and bell-like chords dominate the sonority of this grand movement, whose leaping octavesncontribute a fortitude that nods to Beethoven.

A sort of drum-roll effect permeates the Intermezzo (Rueckblick) fourth movement, in 2/4 and in b-flat minor.  Serving as a cyclic recollection of the second movement, the music might be the composer’s acknowledgement of the Beethoven influence. Fateful triplets on F seem the order of the moment, but the affect proves ghostly, in open fifths. With tremolo in the bass, the atmosphere becomes truly ominous. Brahms layers the rhythm upon itself, but the gloom subsides into B-flat in both its modes. The music swings into a gallop for a rondo-finale in 6/8. Syncopations mark this music, which by Freire proves as lovely as it is restless. Brahms favors F as a point of departure, but the music bounces rather impishly, even assuming at moments a decisive, bravura character. The contrasting theme in D-flat will gravitate into moments of canon and Bach-like figures tempered by a vast familiarity with Schumann. By the end of the piece, the tempo has accelerated, rather dizzy in momentum, but grandly effective. The “Amen” effect, cadences in B-flat and F, leave us with an impression of youthful, fervent vigor which has not diminished in Freire’s forceful realization.

Freire chooses a series of short, later pieces by Brahms, opening with the carillon-like A-flat Intermezzo, Op. 76, No. 3 (Grazioso). The B-flat Major, Op. 76, No. 4, sports watery, rippling effects that presage Debussy in their own way. A tender intimacy pervades these lovely “transitions” to the “lonely bachelor’s music” of the composer’s days, 1892-1893. That passion had not abandoned the old man makes itself forcefully clear in the d minor Capriccio, Op. 116, No. 1, the first of the Fantasien set. The ensuing Adagio in E Major, Op. 116, No. 4 projects a decidedly melancholic nocturne. The underlying bass harmonies swirl with the mystery of unresolved possibilities below the surface. Again, we think of Artur Rubinstein while Freire intones the B-flat minor Intermezzo, Op. 117, No. 2, a true “rainy-day” Brahms piece.  The inner sense of agitation and tragic tension clashes with the air of romantic resignation. With two pieces from Op. 118, the broad Intermezzo in A Major (No. 2), and the Ballade in g minor (No. 3), Freire completes the series of contrasts in mood from diverse Brahms opera: the No. 2 invokes the lyrical, Schubert-influenced and polyphonic aspect of Brahms.  The Ballade has not the grand vision we encounter in Chopin, but a hefty, tightly-knit propulsion.

Freire presents the 1893 Klavierstücke, Op. 119 as an entirety: the opening b minor may well be the most forward-looking piano piece in Brahms, what Clara Schumann called a “grey pearl” for its falling-thirds progressions. For us, its intimations of the Second Viennese School come to haunt us with an eerie presence as Freire slowly draws beauty from its discords. The second of the set, in e minor, proceeds by subtle variations.  The music pulses nervously along, moving by canny agogics into a waltz. From its deft staccatos, the C Major Intermezzo weaves a brief but pliant, shifting spell. The athletic E-flat Rhapsody, built upon five-bar phrases, shares with Schubert’s E-flat Impromptu the distinction of opening in major and ending in minor. Freire imbues the Rhapsody with Hungarian thunder, discarding poetry in the outer sections for Beethoven’s force.  The middle section, something of a salon episode, moves into a sweetly, sashaying A-flat before the stentorian affect returns in martial figures.

One more homage to Schubert appears as an “epilogue,” the A-flat Waltz, Op. 39, No. 15 from 1865.  Its ingenuous simplicity casts a nostalgic glow upon a disc that surely marks a milestone in Freire’s happy association with the Brahms oeuvre.  Recorded 20-25 February 2017 and engineered and produced by Dominic Fyte, the Brahms journey heralds an historic occasion.

—Gary Lemco

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