The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Pianist Nelson Freire’s new recording of Chopin’s complete Nocturnes disappoints The Ear

April 3, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

A reminder: It’s spring break. Because of staffing for the blog, your comments may take a bit longer to get posted. But don’t despair — they will get there.

For quite a few years, Brazil-born piano virtuoso Nelson Freire (below, playing with Martha Argerich) languished in the shadows and maintained a cult-like following.

He deserved a much higher profile.

So when he returned recording on Decca several years ago, it was a joyous occasion and his playing proved a revelation.

I loved his albums with Chopin etudes and sonatas, his Schumann and his Debussy albums and his award-winning set of Brahms concertos. All were long on virtuosity, but even longer on musicality and original interpretation.

But sometimes something happens.

Two of his recent CDs have disappointed me a lot, maybe because my expectations were too high – or maybe because his playing was simply not high enough.

The Beethoven piano sonatas were played at such a rushed tempo that, to my ears at least, much of their musicality was destroyed.

And now comes his specially priced complete set of Chopin Nocturnes.

I really wanted to like this album. I looked for Freire to do things I had never heard, to make these frequently hackneyed pieces a revelation.

Alas, I find the album — which has already won an international award — uneven. At times, he plays superbly. But also at times I find the readings too jerky or halting in their phrasing, too choppy in their songfulness and their melodic line. And the tempi often seem to drag.

Not that the playing is ever bad. Freire is simply too good for that. But it seems too much traditional with nothing really new to say.

Of course, for “definitive” interpretations – that is, for the ones that please or reward you most consistently – you will have to look for single performers among many great performers who have recorded the Nocturnes.

Right now, though, if you want complete sets I would say you have two choices:

If you want a traditional lyrical reading of the Romantic nocturnes, then you should probably go for Arthur Rubinstein’s third and final recording from the 1960s.

If you want a more modern interpretation, one that removes some of the yellow waxy buildup from these canonic works, then listen to Maurizio Pollini’s complete set on DG.

Perhaps a new set of the nocturnes – to mark Yundi Li’s debut on EMI in April – will give me what I am looking for: a relatively straightforward and unsentimental reading of this great night music by the most Classical of Romantic composers.

Here is a link to Freire’s home page:

And Freire can play Chopin superbly, as this 1983 performance of the Scherzo No. 4 from YouTube demonstrates:

What do you think of Nelson Freire in general?

What are his best albums?

His worst?

What do you think of his Chopin Nocturne’s?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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