F. Chopin, Sonata No. 2, Barcarolle op. 60, Études op. 10,
Nelson Freire does his Homework
There are many excellent choices for the Chopin Études (op. 10) that are available. The literal brilliance of Maurizio Pollini, the velvety virtuosity of Vladimir Ashkenazy (the 50s recording, if you can find it) or Murray Perahia's version, as smooth as Häagen-Dazs at room temperature all deserve, even require, being heard. Still, Nelson Freire, one of the finest and somewhat underrated pianists of our time, adds something new. In his new Chopin recording on Decca, the Études are probably the finest of his contributions to the Chopin catalogue. Instead of dazzling the listener by emphasizing the 10-note arpeggios of Étude No. 1, he plays up the bass line's melody, presenting a very different side of that oft-heard piece and also setting the tone for what is to follow. His beautiful, bell-like ringing bass notes are the glory of the entire set. Virtuosity for its own sake is shunned in favor of a round, full interpretation that brims with musicality. His mature rendering of the second sonata is very fine but does not move me quite as much as Pollini does (especially in his live performance at the Kennedy Center a few months ago, who made even the funeral march sound fascinatingly new) and is understandably less wild and puppy-like than the young Leif Ove Andsnes's early recording, just re-released on a budget Virgin disc. The Barcarolle, op. 60, wedged between the two more substantial works is much more than just a filler and reminds me, if faintly, of Claudio Arrau's regal, patrician version. For anyone who can't get enough of extraordinarily well-played Chopin, Nelson Freire's recital is a rewarding choice. Offering just one set of the Études and one sonata, however, it will be less attractive as a first version of these works, as it would almost necessitate doubling up these pieces when exploring the op. 25 Études and Sonata No. 3 later on.