Once an Enigma, Nelson Freire Steps into the Spotlight

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On January 1, 1970, a 25-year-old Brazilian pianist named Nelson Freire made his New York debut with the New York Philharmonic. An advance story in the New York Times headlined, “A New Whiz on the Piano” touted the pianist's powerful yet sensitive playing on his just-released debut recordings. Time magazine meanwhile called him "one of the most exciting new pianists of this or any other age," and a European newspaper dubbed him "the jaguar with velvet paws."

The day after his Philharmonic appearance he made his American recital debut in Garden City, Long Island.

But the following decades saw a far more measured career trajectory when compared to the initial hype. Freire's recordings were sporadic and only a handful remain in print. He did not perform routinely in the U.S., and when he did it was often in a duo with the untamable pianist Martha Argerich. But he was better known overseas, and consequently, an aura of mystery surrounded Freire.

Yet that has been changing. In the last decade, Freire has made debuts with several top American orchestras. A recording contract with Decca has yielded well-received solo albums of Debussy, Liszt and Chopin. And this week he appears on the opening programs of the Mostly Mozart Festival, playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 D. 466. WQXR broadcasts the Wednesday concert live at 8 pm.

Freire, 67, mostly shrugs off his understated persona. "I’m a natural,” he told Jeff Spurgeon. “I don’t build any kind of different personality than my own. Music for me is a natural thing. It has always been.”

Freire’s Mostly Mozart appearance — which follows his festival debut last season — kicks off what will be a keyboard-heavy festival, with eight more pianists scheduled over the next three weeks.

The Concerto No. 20 is one of only two piano concertos that Mozart wrote in a minor key, Freire notes, and this one is identifiable for its appearance in the 1984 biopic “Amadeus.” "People thing of Mozart as being delicate,” said Freire. “This is not delicate. It [has] much that’s tragic and much fire, blood."

It may help further establish Freire on the public's radar. “The more one gets older the more one feels Mozart,” Freire continued. “It’s something very out of this world. It’s heavenly. With maturity you enjoy and appreciate this music even more than when you’re young."