New Classical Tracks - A Celebration of Franz Liszt

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
June 21, 2011

After soccer, the number-one love of Brazilians is the piano. Brazilian pianists are said to have a certain kind of rhythm in the way they play, a vibration that you don't find anywhere else. That's certainly true of Nelson Freire. Many consider him to be one of the world's best-kept secrets. Freire grew up in a small Brazilian town where only about three pianos existed. His mother was a music lover, so she bought one of those instruments with her first paycheck as a teacher. It was money well spent. As it turned out, Freire was a child prodigy. As a young boy, he moved with his family to Rio de Janeiro where he began to work with Lucia Branco, who once studied with a student of Franz Liszt. Liszt, the legendary Hungarian pianist and composer, was born on October 22, 1811. This year marks the bicentennial of his birth and Nelson Freire has just released a new recording of his personal Liszt favorites to mark the composer's anniversary.

Franz Liszt made the piano sexy. He was one of the greatest pianists in history. It was Liszt who invented the piano recital, turning the instrument sideways, to show off his incredible talent, and his good looks. Three musicians changed everything for Liszt; Chopin, Berlioz, and Paganini. From Berlioz he gained a better understanding of colorful orchestration; from Chopin he absorbed poetry and refinement in his playing; and Liszt consciously set out to emulate Paganini, by stretching the possibilities of his instrument. In this hand-selected program, Nelson Freire has chosen pieces that reflect all three of these influences. It's the sensitive, contemplative pieces that captivate my ear, like the set of Six Consolations written in 1850. They take their title from a set of poems by the French writer Sainte-Beuve . The third consolation, marked Lento placido, was inspired by Chopin's nocturnes. Nelson Freire's delicate touch brings out the flowing, lyrical texture of this wistful piece.

The Valse oubliee is the first of four so-called "forgotten waltzes" written during the composer's late period. It opens in similar style to a Strauss waltz with a series of unusual harmonic staccato chords. The lilting melody in the right hand breezes up and down the keyboard, as the left hand carries out partial chords, similar to what a jazz musician might play. We hear the playful side of the composer, and the pianist, in this tiny waltz.

Franz Liszt composed nineteen Hungarian Rhapsodies as a tribute to his homeland. For this new release, Nelson Freire chose one that is rarely heard, No. 3 in B Flat Major. Close your eyes as you listen to this rhapsody and it's easy to get lost in this charming gypsy dance.

The Ballade No. 2 in B minor shows the sumptuous, flamboyant side of Franz Liszt. This is the more popular of the composer's two ballades. It's also twice as long as the first. This piece is based on "Lenore," a poetic ballad by an 18th-century German author. It's a Gothic tale of a character who returns from the grave. The haunting theme in the lower register sets the stage for this unearthly story. The mid-section bursts with virtuosic turbulence, suggesting a struggle between good and evil. Before the quiet conclusion Nelson Freire takes the listener on a dazzling, melodic ride.

This Liszt recital closes out with the title track, "Harmonies du Soir," the eleventh of twelve Transcendental Etudes. This one is a study in harmonies and broken chords, with the themes, and the hands, moving all over the keyboard. It's a work of art, made even more radiant by Freire's imaginative pedaling.

The best gift is one that you would want for yourself, and that's what Nelson Freire has prepared for the listener, with this hand-picked collection of personal favorites. It should be a must-have recording as we mark the 200th birth anniversary of the composer, innovator, and pianist extraordinaire, Franz Liszt.

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