Nelson Freire – Rites of Passage

Sleeve notes by pianist and author Gilda Oswaldo Cruz for the SanCtuS album “Rites of Passage”;

The Historic Recordings featured in the SanCtuS catalogue unite outstanding musical documents of different periods and styles. An example is the album “Rites of Passage”, which features early adolescence recordings of the celebrated Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire. As all SanCtuS titles, this album contains informative sleeve notes in three languages, amongst which an inspired text by Alain Lompech as well as a beautiful introduction written by Gilda Oswaldo Cruz, herself a talented pianist and writer, which we share below for the appreciation of a wider public.

Nelson Freire, at the age of only twelve, achieved the first rite of passage, through which great pianists must pass, when he had to compete against almost 50 candidates from several countries, all of which were older than he. This took place in August 1957, during the 1st International Piano Competition of Rio de Janeiro, in which Freire obtained ninth place. With this prize, the talented young musician that had barely entered puberty was obliged to abandon the protected world of his youth and enter the luminous but frightening arena of stardom. Let us briefly describe the cultural life of Rio de Janeiro during that period in which it was still the Capital of the country and the world-wide impact that this first international piano competition had on a child prodigy from the small town of Boa Esperança, state of Minas Gerais, and who was destined to become one of the great international interpreters.

A city in ebullient cultural upheaval

There are many persons who consider Rio de Janeiro, before the federal Capital was transferred to Brasilia, as one of the culturally most dynamic cities in the West. In 1956, Juscelino Kubitscheck was sworn into office as President of the Republic, an event that signaled the beginning of a decisive five years of the country’s development. Born in Diamantina – according to tradition, those born in that old town believe strongly that it is possible to change a person’s luck overnight – Kubitscheck established the foundation for the second wave of industrial development in the country; determined the construction of a new Capital in the center of a vast territory; and spread among Brazilians hope and optimism. During his term, Brazilian culture attained a singular splendor. In the field of literature, the greatest Brazilian writers and poets of the time lived, wrote and published their works in Rio de Janeiro. The “Cinema Novo” (New Cinema) burst forth radically renovating the genre in Brazil. Brazilian architecture became known worldwide, due to the work of an extremely brilliant generation. Theatre thrived as a live art, avidly followed by the “Carioca” public which turned out in full force for the opening nights of avant-garde plays. In the plastic arts’ scene, different styles seemed to spring out, from the abstract and concrete to the figurative, from drawings to engravings and painting, with great emphasis on sculpture. In the field of music, Heitor Villa-Lobos was still alive and at the peak of his form and the concerts of the Brazilian Symphonic Orchestra, conducted by Eleazar de Carvalho, offered every week new compositions by the foremost composers. The choir of the Brazilian Association of Choral Singing  presented recently recovered compositions from the Brazilian baroque era. Furthermore, there were the Musical Youth concerts, on Sunday mornings, when it was possible to hear Mahler compositions conducted by Leonard Bernstein as well as other great international musicians. The Brazilian Association of Concerts, presided by Maria Amélia Resende Martins, brought to Rio the elite of great interpreters, such as Rubinstein, Brailowsky, Gieseking, Backhaus, Firkusny, Friedrich Gulda and the divine Guiomar Novaes. Last but not least, “Bossa Nova” appeared in the horizon to the delight of “Cariocas”, Brazilians and the rest of the world. Ebullience seemed to show its face everywhere and 1958 was the year Brazil won in Sweden its first soccer World Cup. All of this was covered fully in the local press in splendidly written articles, printed in “Correio da Manhã”, “Jornal do Brasil”and “Globo” as well as the weekly illustrated magazines. It was during this creative surge that Alexandre Sinkiewick and Maria Augusta Menezes Morgenroth (née de Oliva) had the idea to organize, for the first time, an international piano competition in Rio.

The competition

One can refer to a great school Brazilian piano playing, from which, without a doubt, the most brilliant star was Guiomar Novaes, followed by many other star players of the first order, such as Magdalen Tagliaferro, Antonieta Rudge, Yara Bernette, Arnaldo Estrella, Homero Magalhães, Jacques Klein and many others. During the mid twentieth century, piano teaching in Rio de Janeiro was carried out by a constellation of excellent teachers, aside from the “Escola de Música da UFRJ” (the Music School of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro), and other prestigious institutions such as the “Conservatório Brasileiro de Música” (the Brazilian Conservatory of Music) and the “Academia Lorenzo Fernandez”. Of the great music pedagogues of that time, names such as Tómas Terán, Lúcia Branco, Arnaldo Estrella and Nise Obino stand out, amongst many others. However, strange at it may seem, no international competition had ever been held in Rio de Janeiro. Maria Augusta Menezes de Oliva Morgenroth, herself a pianist with long international experience, decided to organize an event of the highest level, at her own expense and with the abnegated help of a group of voluntary friends, amongst which Haydée Lázaro, a piano teacher. By choosing Chopin as composer and central theme of the competition, the organizers obtained the support and enthusiasm of the Poles Alexander Sinkiewicz and Henryk Sztompka. As in many other cultural initiatives in Brazil, the event was based on the stubbornness and personal financial resources of the organizers, who sold some of their belongings to contribute towards the success of the event in which they had full confidence. The organizational aspects were complex and required of the group many hundreds of hours of work. There was no financial support on the part of the authorities. The choice of the composer was due to the fact that he was one of the most loved by Brazilians. All foreign participants were put up in private houses of the city’s music lovers. The international and Brazilian members of the Jury, composed of Alexander Sinkiewicz, Guiomar Novaes, Lily Kraus, Pavel Serebiakov, Hans Sittner and Henryk Sztompka were courtesy guests of the Copacabana Palace Hotel. Suddenly, Rio de Janeiro became seduced by this group of young musicians, coming from several continents, with their individual personalities and artistic profiles – all of them dedicated to Chopin’s music. The Brazilian candidates also drew quite some attention and curiosity. The newspapers,  radio and the at that time incipient TV covered the event from the first to the last round, professionally and with enthusiasm. The competition became the talk of the town. At the behest of Maria Augusta, President Juscelino Kubitschek promised to be present at the final and offer, on a personal basis, a prize of US$ 500 for the best interpretation of the Brazilian score required in the program of the competition.

Young Nelson

Specialists maintain that, for a long musical career, it is necessary to have natural talent, a stimulating and stable family environment and a prolonged contact with elite teachers, from an early age. All of this Nelson had. Regarding musical talent, he was genuinely a rough diamond that travelled to Rio de Janeiro from the interior of the State of Minas Gerais, at the age of 4, which already was considered a young age for a prodigy. He played in public, read music, improvised, played arrangements that he had composed of classical and popular music. Fortunately, after some initial misunderstandings, his pianistic art became chiseled, carved and polished by two pedagogues of exceptional talent: Nise Obino and Lúcia Branco. In 1956, he participated in a competition to play with the Brazilian Symphonic Orchestra and was selected to play as soloist Mozart’s Piano Concerto KV 271, at the Municipal Theatre. Still in 1956, his first recital – with a demanding program – was held in the foyer of the Municipal Theatre, and was enthusiastically received. This precocious première with such a highly-appreciated performance was the object of so many comments that the organizers of the recital requested of Lúcia Branco, who had taken over the direction of his studies, that he should not fail to be signed up for the competion.

Three years in a month

Lúcia was in the process of preparing other older candidates and Nelson, with one month to go till the beginning of the competition, felt rather unprotected. It was then that he was summoned by his first and adored teacher from Minas Gerais, Nise Obino, who had been forbidden by a jealous husband to give piano lessons to whosoever, during two years. Nise provoked the boy: “Let’s hear how this program is going”. With her customary frankness, she told him after listening: “This is very bad. You will come to my house every day and we will go over the whole repertory again”. Nelson admits today, after over 50 years, that during that month of secret (so as not to hurt the feelings of Lúcia Branco) lessons with Nise he learned more in one month than in three years. Nise determined the order of presentation of certain pieces on the program, “to raise enthusiasm from the beginning”; she sent someone as a spy on the performances of the Polish candidate, in order to be able to teach her pet student the secrets of authentic mazurca playing; she went over with him exhaustingly all the program and prepared Nelson, during that short interval of 30 days, for the great leap that would project him into artistic maturity.


During the first qualifying rounds, Nelson’s marks were the highest of all 47 contestants. The audience filled the theatre during the rounds that lasted whole days and would take part for one or other candidate; but Nelson received special attention, not only because he was Brazilian, but mainly due to the fact that he was the youngest of the contestants. Finally, the day of eliminatory round for the final arrived, when contestants would have to play a movement of a piano concerto. Nelson himself chose Beethoven’s 5th (“Emperor”). When he heard his name announced as finalist, Nelson admits he “felt a tightening around my heart…”

The final

Lily Kraus applauded enthusiastically, and with great feeling. Guiomar Novaes declared: “He is our small Rubinstein.”  Martha Pariente, also a candidate, mentioned that Nelson was the best interpreter of all the candidates. His interpretation of the first movement of the “Emperor” with orchestra conducted by Nino Stinca was magnificent, as attests the live recording that was broadcasted, and which is included in the present CD, although it was not possible to improve the acoustic quality to a degree even close to that heard at the original performance. It has been included as a bonus, due to its great historic and musical interest. The public was ecstatic and applause soared as a wave of stirring enthusiasm fired by the young artist who received a standing ovation from President Kubitschek, in the presidential booth, who declared publicly that he would guarantee on the part of the Government to his young fellow-countryman a scholarship overseas. Nelson timidly thanked all, without a smile, modest and composed.

Echos of the competition

The first prize was given to Alexander Jenner, a Viennese pianist, who had a gesture of extreme generosity of writing on the competition program that Nelson asked him to autograph: “To the real winner of this competition.” Shortly after the Rio de Janeiro competition, the “ Festival de Piano de São Paulo” (São Paulo Piano Festival) was organized to which all the finalists of the Rio de Janeiro Competition were invited to participate. As a consequence of his participation in the 1st International Competition of Rio de Janeiro that Nelson was invited to record his first LP, which SanCtuS releases in its present CD format. The LP was studio-recorded in just two hours and the last piece (the 1st Scherzo in B minor) also included on this CD  was studied and memorized in two weeks.

Two years later, Nelson left for Europe, accompanied by Bruno Seidhofer, with whom he would study for some years in Vienna. 1964, proved to be his first definite landmark, after taking away the 1st Prize in the Vianna da Motta International Piano Competition, in Lisbon. From then on, his career has soared 

Text by Gilda Oswaldo Cruz
Translation by Affonso José Santos
©SanCtuS Recordings 2021

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