The Web site of Nelson Freire's recording label, Decca, calls him "the best-kept secret in the world of the piano. " But he's no secret...

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The Web site of Nelson Freire’s recording label, Decca, calls him “the best-kept secret in the world of the piano.” But he’s no secret at all to keyboard fans, who have long known that the Brazilian-born Freire, who just won Gramophone Magazine’s “Record of the Year” award for his recording of Brahms piano concerti, is among the world’s finest pianists.

“I guess I am not so secret anymore,” joked the affable pianist in a phone conversation from Brazil. He returns to Seattle Tuesday with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Yuri Temirkanov, playing the Schumann Concerto, selections from Schubert’s Incidental Music to “Rosamunde” and Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

“I always avoid publicity,” Freire added. “My manager once said that we are ‘making a career despite you.’ But especially since my contract with Decca in the year 2000, things are changing a little.” The prestigious awards from Gramophone (that Brahms recording also won in their concerto category) have burnished his profile more than a little.

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Freire has long been well-known in Seattle, with a Seattle Symphony association that reaches back into the late 1970s. He accompanied the Seattle Symphony and its late music director Rainer Miedel on a 1980 three-week tour of Europe, during which Freire never played his concerti (the Rachmaninoff and Beethoven Thirds) the same way on any two occasions.

“I have very happy memories of that tour,” Freire recalled. “And I also love Seattle so much. The nature there is so beautiful. I like the West Coast very much; it appeals to me more than other parts of the country. Maybe it is because Portland, Oregon, was my first time in the U.S. — it was 41 years ago, back in 1966. I can’t believe it was that long ago! I played Prokofiev Second [Concerto] and [Falla’s] ‘Nights in the Gardens of Spain.’ “

Born in 1944, Freire was 3 years old when his sister gave him his first piano lesson, and 4 when he made his first public appearance, playing Mozart’s Sonata in A Major, K.331. He studied with two pupils of the legendary Franz Liszt (Nise Obino and Lucia Branco) and won a government scholarship at the 1957 International Piano Competition in Rio de Janeiro, which led to studies in Vienna with Bruno Seidlhofer. Then came the international prizes, including the Dinu Lipatti Medal in London and first prize at the International Vienna da Motta Competition in Lisbon.

For many years, Freire has also been the duo partner of his more famous colleague, the firebrand pianist Martha Argerich. The two have just returned from what Freire calls “a small tour in Europe. It was my first time in Romania. I was fascinated by Bucharest — the public and the atmosphere. There’s a wonderful old 19th-century concert hall, the Athenaeum.

“Martha and I have known each other so many years. We’re almost improvising when we are on stage.”

Freire has played with the world’s great orchestras, but this is his first time with the St. Petersburg. He says he’s “quite fortunate to have such an orchestra and such a conductor. It’s ideal for this type of Central European repertoire. Schumann is one of my dearest concerti; I never get tired of it. It always sounds fresh. You know, it’s quite a difficult concerto, even though it doesn’t always show it. It’s very challenging to play it well.”

This Central European repertoire is the meat and potatoes of Freire’s concert career. He says his “main repertoire is romantic,” though he also plays a lot of Debussy, Bartok and Villa-Lobos.

“I don’t play avant-garde music,” Freire explained. “I leave that to those who feel it better than I do. But I really have quite a broad repertoire.”

Added the Seattle favorite: “I’m very excited to be coming back to Seattle. I’m not so excited about flying, though. I hate flying — I’m very much scared of it. But of course we do what we must.”

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com