First there was a change to the program. Freire was scheduled to play Mozart's Sonata in A Major K 331 (the piece he incidentally made his debut with at age 5!). However, he played Schumann's Opus 2, Papillons instead, and paired it with Brahms' Sonata No. 2 in F-sharp minor (Opus 2 No. 2). I've studied Papillons (as recently as January 2009) and I found Freire's Schumann playing to be brilliant and charming. I felt that he perfectly captured the mood of each little miniature. I so wish I had his octave speed (see my former posts in February on my struggles with octaves), not to mention his dexterity and clarity.
The Brahms was a revelation - strong, passionate playing. I could imagine the young Brahms playing this work for Clara and Robert Schumann, and how they must have swooned upon first hearing it. I could also imagine that if Brahms had matured differently, he would have been a serious rival to Liszt and his school of pyrotechnic piano pieces. All that aside, there was something missing for me in Freire's performance. At certain places where an interpreter could pause for reflection (without changing the rhythm) to create more suspense and drama, it just didn't happen. It was all bravura playing and when required, quiet sensitive lyric playing, but it seemed almost soulless to me. Freire is certainly too good of a musician to "phone in" a performance -- and yet it almost seemed that way to me, as the playing seemed to lack emotional depth.
And this feeling was magnified in his Chopin selections. Freire is famous for his interpretation of the Barcarolle in F#-sharp minor, Opus 60. Really? Not for me. I love this piece, so I'm pretty picky about what I want to hear in an interpretation. The piece didn't breathe. It was as though someone were showing me pictures from their vacation, but instead of lingering over a few choice postcards accompanied by charming anecdotes, they just rushed through the pictures in a perfunctory way. Again, Freire is too good of a musician to not phrase perfectly, hit all of the notes, show a range of dynamics, and so on; however, I kept getting the sense that he's played these works by Chopin so many times that he's almost on autopilot. It's as if he has played these melodies so many times, there is no longer any novelty in the playing.
The Debussy was a delight. Every mood was captured in the selections from the Preludes, Book 1 (he played #4, #5 and #12) and since they were fleeting, charming pieces...they were perfect. I think he is brilliant at miniatures and being able to change moods quickly...but to my ear, there is not a lot of depth to his playing.
Andrew Clements of London's The Guardian, (Friday 23 January 2009) said the following about Freire's Debussy playing:
..."This is Debussy's tonal palette reimagined in much bolder, primary colours; even a study in greys such as the prelude Des Pas sur la Neige seems sharper focused and brighter toned than usual. At his best, though, Freire is totally convincing and his accounts of Le Vent dans la Plaine, La Sérénade Interrompue and especially La Cathédrale Engloutie are unqualifed successes..."
Not surprisingly, Freire's interpretations of fellow Brazillian Villa-Lobos were spectacular. He played Alma Brasileira and Danca do Indio Branco. I especially loved Alma because of the moody and disharmonious opening and closing statements. After the Debussy and the Villa Lobos, I found myself thinking that I'd want to hear Freire play twentieth-century works exclusively (even though I really loved his Papillons).
The audience loved him and brought him back for three encores. I didn't know any of the encores (thanks to my spotty musical education), and he didn't announce what they were, either. Freire is a brilliant pianist and one of the giants of our time. I'm so lucky to have heard him live, but I don't think I'll need to hear him again. In many ways I agree with Andrew Clements (paraphrased) "Freire is more a pianist to be admired than to be loved..."