01 November 2021
By Ellie Palmer
Freire passed away after a fall at his home in Brazil
Updated on 30 November
Piano legend Nelson Freire has sadly passed away at the age of 77.
Freire recently pulled out of his expected appearance as part of the jury for this year's International Chopin Competition in Warsaw (3-18 October) due to health reasons. His lifelong friend and fellow South American Martha Argerich also pulled out of the jury in order to be with him.
He died of concussion after falling at his home in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, just two weeks after his 77th birthday.
For many, Nelson Freire was seen as Brazil's greatest ever pianist. He began playing around the age of three, first being taught by Lucia Branco, a former student of Arthur de Greef, a pupil of Liszt. In 1957 at around 13 years old, he won a grant at the Rio de Janeiro International Piano Competition with a performance of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. This propelled his career forwards, soon moving to Vienna to study with Bruno Seidlhofer, teacher of Friedrich Gulda. Seven years later he won the Dinu Lipatti Medal in London and first prize at the International Vianna da Motta Competition in Lisbon.
The Brazilian appeared at virtually every important musical centre, in recital and working with countless distinguished conductors and orchestras. We've picked out some of his best live performances from YouTube here.
A great musical collaborator, he toured extensively with Martha Argerich. They recorded several discs together, including a live recital from the Salzburg Festival.
Freire began recording exclusively for Decca Classics in 2001 and his discography was distinguished by numerous awards including Gramophone Record of the Year in 2007 for the Brahms Piano Concertos and the Latin Grammy for Best Classical Recording in 2013 for ‘Brasileiro’. Most recently he had recorded a 75th birthday album ‘Encores’ in 2019 which celebrated his life with a very personal collection of favourites, reaching all the way back to his first lessons with another legendary Brazilian pianist, Guiomar Novaes. He received many five star reviews inside Pianist. His discography is extensive, and includes repertoire of Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Debussy, Liszt, as well as the two Brahms Concertos (mentioned above) with the Gewandhaus Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly.
Dominic Fyfe, Decca Classics’ Label Director, paid tribute to the pianist. He was Nelson Freire’s recording producer from 2002. He writes: “Nelson was the consummate recording artist. He was more meticulously prepared for the studio than almost any artist I have encountered and his recordings among the least edited. Paradoxically he claimed never to listen to his own recordings but he knew when his performance matched his exacting standards and he placed his trust in our hands to capture this. We will miss him not just for his extraordinary artistry but also for his friendship, his humour, his humility. He was one of the greats and truly irreplaceable”.
In her ‘Martha Argerich at 80’ feature inside issue 120, writer Jessica Duchen pointed readers towards Freire’s Rachmaninov two-piano recording with his Argerich:
Martha Argerich & Nelson Freire: Rachmaninov Suite No 2
"No Argerich collection would be complete without a good dose of Rachmaninov. This two-piano recital in Tokyo in 2003 brings her together with the Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire, who proves a heaven-sent duo partner in the fairy-tale gorgeousness of the composer’s Suite No 2.
Both pianists seem cool as the proverbial cucumber, delivering scintillating fingerwork in the waltz, and breathing as one in the ebb and flow of the ‘big tune’ rubatos. If it’s possible for this duo to be more than the sum of such extraordinary parts, they’ve managed it."
The duo first recorded Rachmaninov's Suite No 2 in 1983 for their On Two Pianos album, released on the Philips label.
Main image: ©Gregory Favre/Decca