Nelson Freire

Franck: Symphonic Variations; Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 2 [DVD Video]

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The DVD medium is sympathetic to artists who were at their best in live performances and whose reputation is underrepresented, for one reason or another, on recordings. Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire is such a performer, and he is in fine form in this 1983 performance with the Orchestra della Radiotelevisione della Svizzera Italiana (Orchestra of the Swiss Italian Radio and Television), now simply the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana billed on the cover. The technical quality of the release is low for 1983. Picture quality is poor, with an odd fuzz on the screen and occasional distortion. Camera work is sluggish. The concert was recorded in a boxy little hall (unidentified in the packaging, which basically consists of a single sheet identifying the music and performers) that conspires with the engineering to produce unpleasant sound of limited dynamic range -- the percussion strokes that open the central movement of the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22, are inaudible, at least on ordinary equipment. The saving grace is Freire himself, an unfamiliar figure for modern audiences but one who conveys a confident charisma that bears out the contentions of those who have compared him to Rubinstein. The opening bars of the Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra establish a masterful tautness that takes the rest of the structure to dissipate. The finale of the Saint-Saëns concerto is brilliance personified, and the orchestra under David Shallon is an extroverted partner in that work especially. This DVD is emphatically not recommended if you want to try out your new plasma screen and surround-sound speakers, but for lovers of old-school pianism it's a joy.