On a beautiful evening, dry and cool, with golden sunset light, Nelson Freire’s Ozawa Hall piano recital spanned two centuries. The massive program included the Brahms Sonata in F Minor, Op. 5 and the Chopin B Minor Sonata, Op. 58; it opened with three transcriptions of Bach works, placing Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite in between. From the comfort of our seats we watched him climb Everest, seeing him stand on the peak at the end after hearing extraordinary quality of sound, riveting exegetical coherence and sheer beauty.
The mystic’s Triple Way in the form of three short works by Bach opened with a distinctly religious feeling. The purifying via purgativa, BWV 639, Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, was all elegance and singing, with a swelling of yearning in the second theme and a kenotic atmosphere as the dark notes in the lower registers evaporated into the night air. He gave the via illuminativa, BWV 667 Komm, Gott, Schöpfer, Heiliger Geist in a particularly memorable way by avoiding the stridency often heard in this transcription and giving us instead a joyous sense of unexpected and unhoped-for insights that reach us, transform us and inspire us. The via unitiva or “way of union,” brought the Triple Way to perfection with “Jesu Shall Remain My Joy” in the arrangement by Myra Hess. Freire imbued it with the character of a vow, as though pledging the soul to an unending relationship, serene, peaceful, full of implicit gratitude.
His palpable concentration prepared us in a special way for the Brahms Op. 5 Sonata, composed when the composer was only 20 years old and in which he seems to have been grappling with his destiny. Freire’s distinctive presentation of the first movement exploited the contrast between the fortissimo chords of the first theme and the self-doubting low dynamics of the second theme to reveal and affirm human subjectivity in the face of sublime but coldly indifferent cosmic forces. The key was that Freire boldly emphasized the Fate motif, allowing it to verge on terror. By the time we reached the extended coda, the protagonist had discovered that human destiny must be distinguished and reclaimed from blind material forces. The andante, taken somewhat swiftly but ethereal and delicate, suggested that the desire for romantic fusion and timeless bliss exist in the ideal realm of dream, leaving the spirit unfulfilled upon awakening. The third movement scherzo brutally returned the protagonist to the Mephistophelean chaos of reality. Rather than give us mere swagger, Freire provided a veritable struggle with the Devil, the hero finding strength in concealing pain and bruises, in defying Fate with an equal but distinctly human resolve. The short Intermezzo served as the pivot. Freire turned the idea of reminiscence of love into an awareness of death, the Fate motif emerging in its full implacable finality. Consequently, in the fifth movement finale, the initial rondo theme, scherzo-like, emerged as an evocation of death and a struggle for vitality. The first episode, Joachim’s F-A-E (frei aber einsam “free but alone”) expressed the hero’s new-found trust in himself and resolve to make his mark. Freire gave a particularly memorable rendition of the rondo return, with its obsessive staccato suggesting that the ambition to create remains tinged with a pervasive awareness of death. With the second episode, hope and a joyous self-confidence grew increasingly palpable, triumphing over annihilation and successfully keeping the demonic rondo theme at bay.
Debussy’s enigmatic Children’s Corner Suite, explored the outer limits of the realm of sound as though exploring the outer limits of the realm of consciousness itself. Freire elevated the first piece, “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum,” above the usual interpretation as piano exercises by subtly evoking a child’s irrepressible impulse to spin until dizzy in order to experiment with altered states of consciousness. In “Jimbo’s Lullaby,” falling into sleep through weight and gravity opened the realm of dreams where illusion roams prettily. “Serenade for the Doll” evoked the magical thinking and hypnotic suggestibility that allow communication across linguistic borders. “Snow is Dancing” brought a state of reverie in which the mind is open to random thoughts, reaching a Zen-like state. “The Little Shepherd,” with its three solo flute passages and alien modes, evoked a spiritual yearning for the supernatural, secretly tinged with anguish and solitude. Finally, “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” pointed to how our consciousness is hemmed in by all of our gritty daily defense mechanisms: mockery, conviviality, aggression, folly, pseudo self-assertion, sarcasm, humor and defiance.
Chopin’s Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58, seems to start where the last of the Op. 28 Preludes leaves off, dealing with the consequences of Adam’s Fall. In the opening movement, Freire’s beautiful tone, especially in the deep, dark notes, brought out the suffering of exile, of facing the abyss and finitude. The second theme, played without lingering, recalled the lyrical imploring of Heaven that we heard in the opening Bach choral prelude, expressed in a more Romantic idiom and with a greater sense of exile. In the development, Freire conveyed the full tragedy of the human predicament, condemned to death and ignorance without parole. The return of the second theme brought to a clear focus the sense that turning to Heaven is the only hope. The scherzo, molto vivace, seemed to evoke distraction in the Pascalian sense of avoiding the great questions of our human predicament by losing ourselves in divertissements, only to find that what we avoid returns as an immovable stone-like obstacle. The third movement Largo brought us back to facing the abyss, the tempo more rapid than usual implying that time introduces an urgency in our priorities. The middle section emerged as an initiation into the realm of the spirit, with celestial undulations penetrating our being and transforming it. The movement, serving as a via illuminativa, constituted the pivotal moment of Freire’s interpretation and prepared us for the Rondo Finale to be cast as a veritable struggle between the soul and forces of darkness and despair. With Freire’s marvelous mastery of dynamics, the struggle took on a Job-like epic dimension, thrilling and exhilarating. The soul dodged blow after blow, wave after wave, escaping finally from the abyss, remaining leggiero and ethereal, refusing to be held down.
A deeply moved audience burst into applause and stood up in ovation. Freire helped us to recover from the draining emotion with a short encore, Chopin’s calming and restorative Mazurka, Op. 17, No. 4.