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CD reviews: Nelson Freire and the salon piano confections of Latin America

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Nelson Freire plays the music of his native Brazil on his latest album for Decca.

Once in a while, I wonder if artists, critics and serious listeners aren’t classical music’s worst enemies in making everything so darn serious.

A case in point is music from the Latin Americas, nearly all of it inflused with folksong and dance-music traditions of their national cultures. It is so easy to dismiss salon pieces as the musical equivalent of junk food. But what is wrong with swaying or tapping your foot along with a favourite pianist?

Three recent releases put the spotlight on the clear differences between Latin American national cultures, showcase three elegant pianists and, even to the casual listener reveal the delicate craft on both the part of the composer and interpreter that makes this music leap off the page.

For details and audio samples for each album, click on the artist’s name.

Brasileiro (Decca)

This much-loved Brazilian virtuoso approaches his 68th birthday with an album of 30 of his favourite miniatures by Brazilian composers. Sixteen on the pieces are by the best-known of them, Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959).

Nearly all of the pieces were written before World War II.

There are contemplative, wistful and elegiac pieces. Others bristle with energy, requiring all of Freire’s remarkable keyboard skills to make them as light and delectable as a fresh pão de queijo (a cheese puff made with yucca flour).

Exemplifying the best of what this music is all about are three fabulous party pieces by Francisco Mignone (1897-1986) that close the album: Valse élégante, Maroca and Congada. Listening to Freire play this music feels like being caressed by the most nimble fingers on the planet.

For a taste of the album’s quieter side, here is Freire at home a few years ago, playing A Lenda do Caboclo (The Caboclo’s Legend) W166 by Villa-Lobos, which is on the album:

Salón Mexicano (Cedille)

On this disc, veteran Mexican-born pianist Jorge Federico Osorio unearths 20 pieces  composed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries  — most of them in the style of mazurkas, waltzes and barcarolles to evoke the world of Chopin and Liszt, but rendered in the colours and textures of Mexican folk music.

Osorio’s playing is elegant and refined in this music we would otherwise not have a chance to hear very often, but I found myself wishing that he would add a dash more élan and sparkle here and there.

Here the Barcarola Op. 30 No. 2 by Ricardo Castro (1864-1907) from the album, played by Osorio in a live performance in Mexico City last December:

This, third album, is one I’ve mentioned here before, but it deserves a place in this particular trio:

Nostalgias Argentinas (Steinway & Sons)

Here are meditative and melancholy pieces for a shady hammock in the afternoon and tangos for twilight pleasure from New York City-based pianist Mirian Conti. A native of Argentina, Conti has spent many years championing young pianists as well as the rich store of tuneful music written for her instrument in that country.

Conti deftly makes the little black notes leap off the pages of contemporary composer Pedro Sáenz (who contributes the three-movement Aquel Buenos Aires). Her interpretations lilt and dance, wrapped in the oft-delicate gauze of melody and its varied harmonies.

Conti’s light, determined, elegant, warm-tipped touch make these 14 pieces and little suites glow and shimmer. I challenge even the stoniest heart not to be seduced.

For all the details on this album, click here.

To give you an idea of what Conti sounds like, here is a piece not on the album, Milonga Sureña, by Juan José Ramos, in live performance:

John Terauds

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