English profiles

The Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire revealed his outstanding gifts and strong artistic personality at an early age. His international career, begun when he was very young, has taken him to cities on every continent, where he has given solo recitals and concerts with some of the world’s leading orchestras and conductors. He often performs piano duets with Martha Argerich, whit whom he made recordings. Here he talks about his life and art.

Stany Kol (SK): How does a person become a great performing artist?

Nelson Freire (NF): In my case, it all started very early. I was a child prodigy. I was born in 1944 in Boa Esperança, a little town in Minas Gerais state, the youngest of five children. There were no musicians in the family, but my mother was a music lover and bought a piano with her first wages as a teacher. I think there were only three pianos in the whole town. She made my elder sister practise. I began to play a little myself, by ear, copying what I heard. I was rather sickly as a child and had several illnesses, but I loved the piano. When I was four, I toldmy parents that I wanted to take lessons.

SK: So they found you a teacher.

NF: Yes, but he lived a four-hour bus ride away. I went to him once a week and had to get up at four in the morning. In those days, there were no motorways. In fact the road was a dirt track, often drenched with rain. After twelve lessons, the teacher told my father there was nothing he could teach me and that I’d have to go to Rio de Janeiro, which was then the capital of Brazil, to get a decent musical education. And so we moved to Rio. It was a big decision for my parents, who had always made their home in Boa Esperança, where all their family lived. My father, who was a pharmacist, had to give up his profession and take a job at a bank.
I took tests at the Rio school of music. The professional musicians were impressed and said I was a child with “golden hands’. But I was still only playing by instinct. I had a hard time finding a teacher. I was a rather unruly child. For two years I went from teacher to teacher, I even kicked one of them because he kept touching my ears, and I hated that. My parents were getting fed up and were thinking of returning to Boa Esperança, and then I was introduced to Lucia Branco, one of  the few piano teachers in Rio I hadn’t met. She was a well known teacher who had been trained by a pupil of Franz Liszt. She advised my parents to send me to one of her students who, she thought, was mad enough to agree to work with me. That’s how I met Nise Obino, her assistant. It was love at first sight. With Nise, I went right back to square one, including even the position of the fingers on the keyboard. She managed to get me to make remarkable progress. My relationship with her was very strong, the strongest in my life. One day when I was very ill with a very high fever, she came to see me and put her hand on my forehead, and my temperature went down immediately. We were very close until her death last January, which was a terrible blow for me.

SK: Did you go to school while being trained?

NF: Yes, just like any other child. My parents didn’t want me to be uneducated. I only practised the piano a couple of hours a day.


SK: When did you first perform in public?

NF: When I was four. Then when I was twelve, Brazil organized a big event, Rio’s first international piano competition. I was intived to take part and was one of eighty contestants. Several of the others were already in their thirties and had a lot of experience. Some had even won prizes in other competitions. Lucia warned me that it would be a good experience for me but that I shouldn’t set my hopes too high. Even so, I was among the finalists. The final was an extraordinary event, a bit like a big soccer match. The Brazilians are mad about the piano. The hall was packed, and the audience was very excited. The president of Brazil, Juscelino Kubitschek, who had followed the preliminaries, offered me a two-year scholarship to go and study wherever I wanted to.

SK: And that’s how you went to Vienan..

NF: Actually, I only went there two years after the competition, when I was fourteen. I chose Vienna because I wanted to work with Bruno Seidlhofer, an Austrian pianist who was very well known in Latin America. I’d played for him in Rio. I set off on my own because my parents couldn’t go with me. I took the boat with Seidlhofer, who was returning home.
In Vienna, I was alone for the first time in my life. I was still quite young and didn’t know a word of German or anything about the city. I found out what it meant to be independant. Those two years were very important for my personal development. It was then that I met Martha Argerich. I didn’t do much work, though, and didn’t enter any competitions. I didn’t live up to expectations. Then the time came when the scholarship ended and I had to return home. Returning to Brazil wasn’t easy. At seventeen I was in the middle of an adolescent crisis, and I had to live with my family again after acquiring a taste for independance and living on my own. During the next year I entered a few competitions but never turned up on the day. Then in 1962 I was offered the opportunity of giving a concert in São Paulo. The concert was a big success and I recovered my enthusiasm and desire to play.

SK: You made a fresh start?

NF: Not yet. Another failure was waiting around the corner, in Belgium where I’d gone at the age of nineteen to take part in the Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians International Musical Competition. When the results were announced, my name wasn’t even mentioned. It was a bitter disappointment. But Martha Argerich was there too. Neither of us felt on top of the world, but we were together and that helped a lot. Going back to Brazil after a flop like that wasn’t very enticing. Then I  remembered that Anna-Stella Schic (1) had suggested that I should take part in a competition in Lisbon where she was a member of the jury. I called for information and was told the competition was starting in two days time. I said I’d be there.

SK: Without knowing the test pieces?

NF: I knew everything except for a compulsory piece that had to be played at the beginning of the competition, Carlos Seixas’Sonata in G-minor (2). When I got there, I asked for the score of this sonata, and they gave it to me but thought I was mad.  What’s more, when lots were drawn for the order of performance, I had to play first. Anyway, I got down to work and threw myself into the competition. I walked off with the first prize! Things really changed for me after that. For six pleasant months I was asked to give a number of concerts in Austria,  Portugese speaking Africa and Madeira.
But other countries were a closed book for me until early in 1965 I received a telegram from Brazil from Ernesto de Quesada, an old man who had been Arthur Rubinstein’s first  agent and went on to found the Conciertos Daniel We had never met, but he’d heard about me from a member of the Lisbon jury. In his telegram he proposed that I should give three concerts in Mexico as a last-minute replacement for Alexander Brailovsky  That was my first contract. After that, I returned to Brazil in style, I did tours in Spain, Argentina, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Peru and other countries. In short I started to earn a living. One day I was in Caracas when Martha Argerich’s agent contacted me and asked whether I would fill in for Shura Cherkassky and play Tschaikofsky’s Second Piano Concerto with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra.

SK: Did you know the concerto?

NF: When the Germans asked me that question, I said yes of course I knew it, whereas in fact I’d never seen the score in my life. And I had two weeks to learn it! I raced to music shops in Caracas, but no one had it. I had to get it from New York. Then for fourteen days I worked on it. When I arrived in Schweinfurt I wasn’t all that sure I could do it by heart, so before going on stage, I asked them to place a closed score of it above the keyboard, just in case. The next day the papers said “a new star is born”. That’s how I got a foothold in Germany in 1966 and began receiving concert offers. I had a terrible experience in 1967. I was going to play in Brazil, at Belo Horizonte in Minas Gerais state, and my parents decided to go with me. Along the way, the bus drive fell asleep at the wheel, and the bus plunged into a ravine killing everyone else on board, including my parents (silence)

SK: When did you start playing duets with Martha Argerich?

NF: Publicly, in 1968 in London at a festival run by Daniel Barenboim. Martha was invited to play a piano duet, and she accepted on condition that I should be her partner. We’d often played four-handed pieces at the house for the fun of it, but this was the first time we did so in public. We weren’t very well prepared, and the performance was not excellent. We didn’t play together again until 1980, twelve years later, in Amsterdam. From then on we really began playing together in concerts and for recordings.
SK: How do you explain the quality of your relationship?
NF: First of all we have know one another very well for a very long time. You know, the best piano duettists are often brothers and sisters or couples. People have to be very close in their personalities, tastes and sensibilities. What’s more, Martha and I have always been open to new discoveries. I think we’ve kept clear of ruts and routines.


SK: Is there a typical style of Brazilian piano playing?

NF: After soccer the piano is the second great love of Brazilians. But while Brazilian pianists have mostly worked in Europe and have certainly been deeply influenced by Europe, it is generally accepted that they have a certain rhythm,  a kind of  vibration that you don’t find elsewhere. For the same reason, some Brazilian pianists have inhibitions and inferiority complexes. They try to deny themselves by becoming more European than the Europeans!

SK: Doesn’t that lead towards a certain standardization?

NF: There is a certain standardization of styles today, especially, I feel, in the United States. In my opinion it’s due to changing ways of training musicians, to the increase in the number of international competitions and their growing importance in musician’s careers, to the money that is now involved in music and to the somewhat haphazard development of compact-disc production. In other parts of the world, including Europe, things haven’t gone so far, and musicians seem to be resisting this move towards standardization. When I sity on competition juries, for example, I am struck by the quality and artistic temperament of many young Russian pianists.

SK: Do you think that Brazilian composers, especially Heitor Villa Lobos, are performed as often as they deserve?

NF: No, Brazil has a lot of fine composers, but Villa Lobos is about the only one who is widely known. And even he, who produced a considerable body of work, isn’t performed very often. I like his music and think I ought to play it. I do so in my recitals. I also play works by Santuro (3) and Mignone (4)., but I’m not sure that this great tradition of Brazilian classical music has remained as active today as it used to be.


SK: You performed all over the world. Is the public always the same?

NF: Clearly there are different publics in different countries and continents. I love to play in Germany. Music seems extraordinarily naturals with German music lovers, almost as if they become part of the music during a concert. In Asia – in Japan, for example – the public is always very enthusiastic, but it has a particular way of listening and communicating. Certain audiences, like the Germans, are open to all performers, well known or otherwise. In Paris,  on the other hand, people will only go to listen to a star. I have a fondness of Brazilian audiences that I feel intensely when I play for them. But I believe that music is and will always be an international language. At most the same works are not heard in the same way in different places. There is another kind of problem. I sometimes wonder whether concerts and live performances aren’t experiencing a kind of crisis because of the extraordinary development of compact discs. I think too much is made of them, and I feel that people are gradually losing the desire to go to concerts.

SK:  Talking about the United Nations, Villa Lobos once said that if world leaders listened to more music, there would be fewer wars.....

NF: He was right. Certainly it is hard for a Brazilian to imagine life without music. Such a life would be a dreadful prospect. Talking of Villa Lobos, the last piano work he wrote, in 1949, was Hommage à Chopin in commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of the composer’s death. Who commissioned it? Unesco!

1)    Anna-Stelle Schic, a Brazilian pianist born in 1925, was a close friend of Heitor Villa Lobos, many of whose works she premiered.
2)    Carlos Seixas (1704-1742), a Portugese composer whose work for the harpsichord is especially well known.
3)    Claudio Santoro (1919-1989), Brazilian composer. A student of Olivier Messiaen and friend of Heitor Villa Lobos, he explored the possibility of atonal music and then turned to musical forms closer to Brazil.
4)    Francisco Mignone (1897-1986), Brazilian composer. He assimilated the style of the Brazilian waltzes that the pianeiros played in cafés at the turn of the century.

Stany Kol, Secretary of Unesco’s General Conference until 2004.

This interview was published in Le Courrier de l’Unesco of September 1995.