TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The Brazilian pianist Nathan Freire (ph) is one of classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz's favorite pianists. His latest recording is an album of piano music by Brahms. Lloyd doesn't always love Brahms, but he loves this recording. Here's his review.
(SOUNDBITE OF NELSON FREIRE PERFORMANCE OF BRAHMS' "KLAVIERSTUCKE, OP. 118: NO. 3 BALLADE IN G MINOR")
LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: "Do You Love Brahms?" That's the title of a famous 1959 novel by Francoise Sagan. And it's a title that's always had a special resonance for me because among the unquestionably great composers, Brahms is one I've always had some question about. His mixture of austere classical formalism and thick-textured romanticism often leads to heavy-handed overstatement. Brahms composed only four symphonies, and if you go to as many concerts as I do, you're doomed to hear the same ones over and over and too often in mediocre performances.
One of my favorite old New Yorker cartoons depicts a symphony concert in chaos, pages of music strewn on the floor, players arguing, a violinist scratching his head, a trumpeter wandering around the stage, blowing his trumpet, a snapped harp string, the timpanist's mallet rolling away and the conductor staring at his score with his index finger in his mouth. A man in the audience grumbles to his wife, this is the worst Brahms' "First" I've ever heard.
I have less trouble with Brahms' chamber music or piano music. While some of it has the density and high rhetoric of the symphonies, more of it is among the most radiantly intimate music ever written.
(SOUNDBITE OF NELSON FREIRE PERFORMANCE OF BRAHMS' "INTERMEZZO IN A MAJOR, OP. 118")
SCHWARTZ: That was the sublime Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire playing Brahms' very late "Intermezzo in A Major, Opus 118" on his new Brahms CD where even the Brahms that I don't usually love sounds lovable. Freire's recording of Brahms's First piano sonata, for example, displays a power that seems to come from personal questioning rather than assertion.
(SOUNDBITE OF NELSON FREIRE PERFORMANCE OF BRAHMS' "ALLEGRO MAESTOSO")
SCHWARTZ: The sonata's quieter passages have a heart-stopping tenderness.
(SOUNDBITE OF NELSON FREIRE PERFORMANCE OF BRAHMS' "ANDANTE ESPRESSIVO")
SCHWARTZ: As I hope you can hear, Freire has an uncanny delicacy of touch. He's almost incapable of playing anything that doesn't sound beautiful or heartfelt. So even with a composer I'm not especially eager to listen to, I can't get enough of this marvelous new CD.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the creative writing MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. His most recent book of poems is called "Little Kisses." He reviewed the new recording "On Decca Classics" of Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire playing Brahms.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Pete Souza, who was the official White House photographer for President Obama. He took 1.9 million photos in eight years, including the famous one in The Situation Room as Obama, Hillary Clinton and the national security team tensely watched the raid on Osama bin Laden. Souza has a book of photos from the Obama years. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio of this story incorrectly gives Nelson Freire's first name as Nathan.]
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.