SAINT-SAENS: Piano Concerto No. 2 in g minor, Op. 22; Grieg: 5 Lyric Pieces; LISZT: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 5 in e minor; Hungarian Rhapsody No. 10 in E Major; Polonaise No. 2 in E Major – Nelson Freire, piano/ Radio-Symphony Orchestra Berlin/ Adam Fischer – Audite 95.742, 55:08 (8/11/17) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Vintage recordings by Nelson Freire reveal several sides of this explosive virtuoso, passionate and intimate, at once.

Those who relish the piano artistry of Brazilian virtuoso Nelson Freire will seek out his 16 March 1986 collaboration with conductor Adam Fischer in the Saint-Saens 1868  Piano Concerto No. 2, a fine addition to Freire’s active discography. Even those familiar with its Bach influences in the opening movement will well appreciate the various nuances Freire brings to the arpeggiated filigree that infiltrates its often dramatically energetic contours. The organ-like cadenza yields to passionate outbursts from Fischer’s orchestra, especially in the woodwinds. The briefer cadenza reveals a thoughtful pearly-play from Freire, while the music literally begins the recapitulation. Even in the midst of these “classical” procedures, we hear hints of the exoticism and “Eastern” sensibility that mark Saint-Saens’ love of North Africa.

The E Major Allegro Scherzando cavorts most playfully, exhibiting a brisk bravura while paying homage to Chopin’s last Scherzo. Glittery and marvelously transparent, the “waltzy” rendition brings back our original sense of freshness when artists like Rubinstein and Gilels performed this “acrobatic” work on records or in concert. The last movement’s irreverent tarantella hurtles forward, buoyant and sonorously opulent; yet another homage, but this time to Beethoven’s Sonata No. 18 in E-flat Major, Op. 31, No. 3. The persistently classical layout acknowledges none other than Mozart as Saint-Saens idol, despite the digital flamboyance and orchestral flair. The pompous bombast and circus pyrotechnics notwithstanding, this concerto always casts a magical spell for its sheer and luminous vitality.

In the course of thirty-five years, Edvard Grieg composed sixty-six keyboard works of intimate and national character, to rival Mendelssohn and any number of Biedermeier advocates. Freire opens with The Lonely Wanderer, Op. 43, No. 2.  This melancholy self-portrait has the twittering Voglein, Op. 43, No. 4 as its successor, perhaps a response to Schumann’s “prophet-bird.” The subjectively national ethos comes forth (mazurka-like) in Volksweise, Op. 12, No. 5. In Norwegisch, Op. 12, No. 6, the national urgency becomes expansive and vigorous, a kind of mazurek. In The Shepherd Boy, Op. 54, No. 1, what would become the first of the Lyric Suite, nostalgia and pastoral simplicity merge into a peace that surpasseth understanding. Freire has performed each of these with a directness and unaffected charm that warrants he explore more of this rich body of work.

The glories of Liszt’s Fifth Hungarian Rhapsody first came to me via Herbert von Karajan and his Berlin Philharmonic. The opening verbunkos, or recruiting song, in the piano version—first heard by me via Alexander Brailowsky—assumes the haunted color of the gypsy scale in augmented seconds. The music bears a funereal cast, its e minor tonality and ethos having been designated “Heroide-Elegiaque,” and the move to E Major confirms its triumphant affect. Freire approaches the more declamatory Hungarian Rhapsody No. 10 with both more dash and idiosyncratic rubato. Chains of trills and broken chords plummet into slick glissandos—a la cimbalom or  zither—and scales built on gypsy harmony.  Playing lightly and fast attests to a decided virtuosity, here on a par with much we relish in Gyorgy Cziffra. The 1852 Second Polonaise certainly nods to Chopin, but its swagger and double-octave propulsion remain entirely Liszt’s own. Liszt inserts cadenzas and wicked flourishes into the dominant melodic line, then he moves into a defined “Trio” in a fuzzy a minor modality. This section brings forth from Freire a range of colors, intimate and alternately assertive, that convey the power we associate with the Liszt concertos.  The colossal panache and sweep of this performance will doubtless motivate Freire acolytes to demand more heated excursions into this pianistic, luxurious world.

Both the Grieg and Liszt selections derive from studio records of 2 June 1966.

—Gary Lemco