Nelson Freire obituary

Brazilian pianist with a thoughtful and distinctive approach to the great concertos and his duo partnership with Martha Argerich

Though the Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire, who has died aged 77, was a musician of the highest calibre, it took several decades before his talent was widely appreciated. He made his debut in London and other European capitals as early as 1968, and went on to record with leading orchestras under such conductors as Kurt Masur and David Zinman.

Those recordings culminated in the two Brahms piano concertos with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly (2006) for Decca. His belated BBC Proms debut had come the previous year in the second concerto, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov.

Nelson Freire playing Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto with the Orchestre Symphonique Français, Paris, 1996

However, it took till 2014, and Freire’s 70th birthday, for many listeners to realise what they had been missing, when a compilation of radio tapes – six works for piano and orchestra, including Chopin’s first concerto and Rachmaninov’s third – was issued on two CDs for Decca. The same occasion prompted the reissue of his Columbia LP performances on seven Sony CDs. In 2019 he was honoured for his lifetime achievement at the International Classical Music Awards.

Many became aware of Freire’s exceptional artistry through his partnership with another South American pianist, the Argentinian Martha Argerich, with whom he toured extensively and recorded over many years, including a live recital from the Salzburg Festival in 2009. Freire was 15 when they met – Argerich a few years older – and the two became lifelong friends. To hear these two geniuses of the keyboard weaving their magic together in the piano duo repertory was an experience not easily forgotten. Rachmaninov’s Second Suite for Two Pianos, Brahms’ St Anthony Variations, Ravel’s La Valse and Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini were among the works to which they brought their combined talents.

Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire playing Rachmaninov’s Second Suite for Two Pianos

Freire’s reluctance to publicise himself undoubtedly resulted in a less stellar career than he might otherwise have enjoyed. But that was the nature of the man: humble, self-questioning, introspective. His style of playing was unobtrusive yet utterly distinctive. While he was prepared to take a certain amount of latitude with rhythms (especially in Chopin) it was never to attention-seeking effect. His tone was soft-grained but luminous; capable of extraordinary delicacy in, say, a Chopin Nocturne, he was equally able to throw off Liszt’s Totentanz with thrilling bravura and an amplitude of sonority all the more exhilarating for its unexpectedness. In Brahms’ Piano Sonata No 3 in F minor, the spaciousness and depth of tone could almost persuade the listener that four hands were in play, but as in the more virtuoso Chopin Etudes, harmonies cascaded with an uncanny blend of potency and intimacy.

The award-winning Brahms with Chailly, and indeed other big-boned concertos such as those of Liszt or Rachmaninov, were never the clangorous, barn-storming affairs they can so easily be in other hands: rather, Freire was concerned to explore their inner world.

Nelson Freire playing Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto

Freire, the youngest of five children, was born in Boa Esperança in the state of Minas Gerais. His mother was a teacher and his father a pharmacist who changed professions to work in a bank in Rio de Janeiro, in order to allow Nelson to study there with Nise Obino, a student of the well-known teacher Lucia Branco, who had in turn been trained by a pupil of Liszt. Having given his first public performance at the age of four, he came seventh in the International Competition in Rio de Janeiro at the age of 13, a success that enabled him to study with Bruno Seidlhofer in Vienna.

He subsequently won the Vianna da Motta Prize in Lisbon and the Dinu Lipatti medal in London. After his 1968 European debuts he went on to the US in 1969 – playing with the New York Philharmonic and on a Royal Philharmonic tour under Rudolf Kempe – and from there to Israel in 1970 and the following year in Japan.

His career firmly established, he played all over the world with orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra. Initially he recorded for CBS, Philips and Deutsche Grammophon. From 2001 he recorded exclusively for Decca in repertory that included Beethoven, Chopin, Bach, Schumann, Debussy and Liszt, as well as the Brahms concertos. In 2010 he recorded the complete Chopin Nocturnes and a recital album for them. The following year, in celebration of Liszt’s bicentenary, he made a recital album entitled Harmonies du Soir.

Nelson Freire playing Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Proms, 2010

For Decca he also recorded a disc of music by his compatriot Heitor Villa-Lobos and other Brazilian composers. For his recording producer, Dominic Fyfe, Freire was “the consummate recording artist, more meticulously prepared for the studio than almost any artist I have encountered and his recordings among the least edited”.

Notwithstanding the intense concentration and refinement of his pianism, Freire had other enthusiasms in life. Cinema he described as his “second passion”, with a particular interest in film noir of the 1940s and 50s. Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang were among his favourite directors. He also had a penchant for jazz, to which he was introduced by Argerich, indulging a special fascination for Ella Fitzgerald, and admiring the joy displayed at the piano by Errol Garner.

He is survived by a brother, Nirval.

Nelson José Pinto Freire, pianist, born 8 October 1944; died 1 November 2021


Barry Millington

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Sheila Nelson obituary
String teacher who introduced young pupils in small groups to the pleasure of making music together

John Fordham

14, Dec, 2020 @11:29 AM

Article image
Nelson Pereira dos Santos obituary
Film director who was regarded as ‘the father of Brazilian cinema’

Ronald Bergan

03, May, 2018 @2:50 PM

Article image
Wanda Wiłkomirska obituary
Violinist who specialised in the works of her Polish compatriots

Anne Inglis

18, May, 2018 @3:50 PM

Article image
Paul Mountain obituary
Other lives: Violinist and teacher who became a senior figure in the musical life of Leeds

Sarah Stead

21, May, 2018 @5:02 PM

Article image
Gennady Rozhdestvensky obituary
Inspirational Russian maestro who served as principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the late 1970s

David Nice

17, Jun, 2018 @3:57 PM

Article image
Mady Mesplé obituary
French soprano who displayed a firm command of dizzying heights and a flair for comedy

Barry Millington

29, Jun, 2020 @2:26 PM

Article image
Krzysztof Penderecki obituary
Polish composer and conductor who was a leading figure in contemporary music

Keith Potter

29, Mar, 2020 @1:10 PM

Article image
Elijah Moshinsky obituary
Opera director who came to prize directness and psychological insight over deconstruction and irony

Barry Millington

25, Jan, 2021 @5:38 PM

Article image
Jane Manning obituary
Singer who championed new music for half a century, giving many premieres with technical precision and dramatic flair

Barry Millington

04, Apr, 2021 @12:44 PM

Article image
Richard Shephard obituary
Composer of music for Anglican services and the York mystery plays who was headteacher of the Minster choir school

Maggie Snowling

31, Mar, 2021 @5:16 PM