Martha and Me
Klaudia Baranowska interviews acclaimed pianist and jury member Nelson Freire at the 16th International Chopin Piano Competition...
Klaudia Baranowska interviews acclaimed pianist and jury member Nelson Freire at the 16th International Chopin Piano Competition
Klaudia Baranowska: Yesterday, to open the 16th Chopin Competition, you and Martha Argerich played Mozart, Schubert, Bartók and Brahms. Why this selection?
Nelson Freire: I very rarely play the piano with other musicians, basically only with Martha. She frequently plays with other pianists. Our common repertoire is fairly limited.
KB: You played Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion; there was no Chopin...
NF: Remember that Chopin composed only one piece for two pianos, Rondo. We have nearly a month of his music before us. I love Chopin's compositions, but it was worthwhile to open the competition with something different. We picked Bartók's Sonata because we both really like this piece, we have recorded it twice, once in its original form and once in its orchestral version. Bartók's piano music is the victim of a certain stereotype: it is often played aggressively, forcefully. However, the few recordings of him that exist prove he played lyrically and poetically.
KB: You like to play Brahms, while, supposedly, Martha Argerich, does not particularly like him.
NF: I've always liked Brahms, while Martha... well, maybe it is the influence of her teacher, Friedrich Gulda, who did not like Brahms.
KB: How long have you played together?
NF: Years and years. We have known each other for nearly half a century. We met while in school, in Vienna. We would play just for fun. Martha was surrounded by lots of people. She always drew them. I usually kept to the side, a little timid. I was only 14 years old. We got to know each other better later on, in Germany. We played in public for the first time in London in 1968. That is when we played Bartók's Sonata. We were not sufficiently prepared and it didn't come off well. We didn't play another concert together for another 10 years or so. That was also when we recorded an album together for Philips with compositions by Ravel and Rachmaninov.
KB: It was only in August that you played at the "Chopin and his Europe" festival. That was not your first performance in Warsaw.
NF: I really enjoy playing at the Warsaw Philharmonic. I'm glad I get to spend three weeks in Warsaw this time.
KB: You are a member of the Competition jury. Did you accept the invitation without a second thought?
NF: This is, without a doubt, one of the most important piano competitions in the world, with great prestige. Thanks to the broadcasts of the rounds, it is almost like the football World Cup!
KB: What is most important when interpreting Chopin's music?
NF: It's difficult to express in words… I once saw a television interview with Vladimir Horowitz. When asked what the most important thing in playing the piano is, he said "The most important thing is for the piano to sing". When playing the piano, you have to put a lot of effort into creating the illusion of singing, in a different way than with stringed instruments. You have to measure the time between notes skilfully, and master many other skills… Chopin had excellent control over his instrument.
KB: Do you think a pianist under 20 years of age can handle the emotional weight of Chopin's music?
NF: Chopin wrote many of his masterpieces when he was precisely that age. I think his music can be equally well understood by young or mature pianist. Age doesn't matter. But Martha Argerich, after winning the competitions in Bolzano and Geneva in 1957, could have competed in Warsaw in 1960, but she waited for the next competition. It's not like that (laughter). She spent less than a year preparing! I was with her in 1964 in Brussels, where she planned on performing in a piano competition. It was there that she decided to take part in the 1965 Chopin Competition. I was also admitted to that competition! My picture is probably even in the programme, but I didn't come. Several months before, I won a piano competition in Lisbon, and my friend Arthur Moreira Lima had been admitted to the Warsaw Competition. We had studied with the same teacher. Another representative of South America would have been too much. Martha won, Arthur took second prize.
KB: Do you regret it? It could have been another success for you.
NF: It hasn't been all successes. In the Brussels competition, where Martha ultimately did not play because of the birth of her first daughter, I didn't make it through the first round. It was a dramatic experience, but luckily, three weeks later I competed in Lisbon and won. I was 19 years old… perhaps because of my failure in Belgium, I didn't want to risk it and come to the Chopin Competition in Warsaw.
Nelson Freire interviewed by Klaudia Baranowska, October 2010.
This article comes from the current edition of the Chopin Express gazette published for the 16th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition, in coooperation with the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and "Gramophone" magazine.
Other articles of interest:
Faith in the Jury