Nelson Freire is, by popular acclaim, one of the world's great pianists, and after the Bach with which he opened last night's concert at Sommets Musicaux, I was happy to go along with that acclaim. But for the rest of the concert, I found myself increasingly at odds with his playing style. On the basis of the chatter in the hall, what follows is a minority report, which at the very least goes to prove that greatness is not a linear scale: tastes differ.

Nelson Freire © Miguel Bueno
Nelson Freire
© Miguel Bueno

The concert opened with three works by Bach, transcribed by three different composers. The start of the Prelude in G minor, BWV535 displayed the mark of a mature musician who is unafraid to make his audience wait: the measured, even tread with which Freire played the early bars showed not just dynamic control of an individual phrase but of the span of the whole work: it made the contrast all the more telling when that measured tread gave way to the furious cascade of notes in the second section. The chorale Ich rufe zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, arranged by Busoni, was a typical Bach exercise in the creation of tension via a harmonic progression: the melody here serves as a chain that links together the accompanying chords, which are full of surprises, Freire allowed those harmonies to shine through, while keeping the melody clearly delineated. In Myra Hess's arrangement of Jesu, Joy of man's desiring, the famously magical interweaving of two melodies – the slow theme that is notionally the main melody and its version implied by the triplets that form the accompaniment – was beautifully executed.

So far, so good, but I parted company with Freire in the next work, Schumann's Fantasy in C minor, Op.17, and remained apart until the final encore, the reason being a style which combines relatively gentle attack with extensive use of the pedal. Immediately, as the opening torrent of notes flooded out, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer density of the wash of sound, searching for definition in the lower register which was not there to be found because of the weight of previous notes. The clarity of melody in the upper register was distinctive, there were good dreamy moments, but my ears were swamped and lost the sense of direction of the overall piece. The big celebratory broken chords that open the second movement provided welcome contrast, as did the bombast with which the celebratory motif returned. The third movement cantabile was nicely weighted and phrased, but throughout, I couldn't suppress feeling that clear articulation was missing.

That feeling remained as the concert progressed. Debussy's La plus que lente – the title taken at its word – was a good match for Freire's softened style, but the Golliwog's Cakewalk felt flat, lacking in brightness and clear accenting of the dance rhythms. In similar vein, Albeniz's Evocacíon was short on Spanish flavour, and Navarra left me without the joy of lilting Spanish dance rhythms that I would have hoped for. Finally, Freire gave a generous three encores, the last of which, a Gluck transcription, showed him at his best once more, a delicate melody played with extreme gentleness.

I'll repeat: mine is a minority view, and many of the audience in Saanen Church were delighted with Freire's sheer refinement. But for me, once the Bach was over, the continual softness of Freire's playing and the blurring of notes from heavy use of the pedal made this a concert disappointingly lacking in sparkle.

 

David's stay at the festival was sponsored by Sommets Musicaux de Gstaad

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