CD Review: Ingrid Fliter plays Beethoven Piano Sonatas

Fliter Plays Beethoven 2In her new Beethoven CD Ingrid Fliter stands tall among the great interpreters of the past

Move over Solomon, Bruce Hungerford, Myra Hess and Clara Haskil: The Argentine pianist (and Gilmore Artist Award recipient) has outgrown her image as a Chopin specialist

By Kevin Moore

I remember words of wisdom from Anton Kuerti, one of the great Beethoven players in the world today. He said that he had two basic rules for all-Beethoven recitals: no more than one minor key sonata per program and no more than one late-period sonata. Those rules elicited some embarrassment from me when I confessed that my first all-Beethoven recital had four minor key sonatas (Op.10, no.1 in C minor; Op.111 in C minor; op.2, no.1 in F minor and the “Appasionata,” Op.57 in F minor).

Argentinian pianist Ingrid Fliter’s newly released Beethoven program on EMI Classics does violate that first rule by putting together three minor key sonatas. However, she certainly makes a persuasive case for these three sonatas as a group. They are also three of the “named” sonatas, even if only one of the names (Sonate Pathetique) was given by Beethoven.

Of the 32 standard piano sonatas of Beethoven there are only nine in minor keys, and one of those is the very short Sonata in G minor, Op.49, no.1 where, in fact, the second of its two movements is in G major. And yet the popular image of Beethoven seems rooted in works like the Fifth Symphony (in C minor), the Ninth Symphony (D minor), the Third Piano Concerto (C minor) and other works of basically dark and dramatic character. Despite that image, the predominant character of the piano sonatas is one of sheer lyricism, melodic grace, and warmth of expression.

Ingrid Fliter finds all of those things in the three sonatas of her program. In addition, the slow movements of all three sonatas are in fact in major keys and provide a built-in contrast. But what makes it work first and foremost is the playing itself.

Fliter has developed a sterling reputation as an artist of impeccable taste, possessing an instinctive, natural sense of the music. Her fame grew suddenly and internationally based on her two first recordings for EMI Classics, both of music by Chopin. Her complete Waltzes were hailed as one of the finest accounts of these pieces since Cortot and Rubinstein, an opinion that I share. Her next Chopin recording had a majestic and touching B Minor Sonata, an intensely lyrical yet powerful Fourth Ballade, and a Barcarolle with all the color and imagination one could possibly wish for.

Yet not all great Chopin interpreters have impressed in Beethoven, and vice versa. For example, as beautifully as Wilhelm Backhaus played Chopin (as evidenced in the first ever recording of the complete Etudes, and also a late recording of the “Funeral March” Sonata) his career was associated mostly with the music of Beethoven and Brahms, at least with respect to the listening public. The same could be said of Alfred Brendel who was famous for his recorded cycles of Beethoven and Schubert sonatas. Despite an early recording of Chopin Polonaises, I don’t believe he played Chopin at all during most of his career. And as well as Artur Rubinstein played Beethoven, his greatest successes, and certainly his best playing, was in the music of Chopin.

Beethoven’s music requires a sense of structure and flow that is sectional and periodic, yet cumulative. When he wrote a dynamic like “forte,” or “piano,” he generally intended that to be the general dynamic until he changed it. Not so with Chopin, whose music often requires a fluid and changing dynamic level, within even single phrases. In other words, the styles of Chopin and Beethoven are built from somewhat different aesthetics and have different views of what matters most in the music. To greatly over-simplify I could say that clarity of structure matters more in Beethoven, where beauty of timbre, shaping of phrases and the emotion of the moment matters more in Chopin. What works interpretively with one often does not with the other.

Yet in this new Beethoven CD Fliter shows that she understands all that, possibly intuitively. Her playing is not focused on the studied perfection and polish that is so often the case with younger competition-winning pianists today. Rather it makes these pieces come alive with a natural and unforced quality that underscores the very real perfection of the playing. It simply grabs the listener the way great Beethoven pieces should. Fliter brings an entirely apt integrity, depth of understanding and seriousness to these classic works.

This is truly great Beethoven playing. It brings to mind the old recordings of Solomon, Hungerford, Myra Hess or Clara Haskil.

In the first sonata on the program, the Sonata Pathetique, Op. 13, she quite rightly repeats the introductory Grave along with the Allegro di molto e con brio exposition. That puts her in the minority of recorded pianists but still in excellent company (Serkin, Kuerti, Hewitt, et al.). In that opening Grave she highlights the seriousness with quite a slow tempo, sharply etched dotted-rhythms and a truly serious sense of weight and depth of sound. The Allegro di molto e con brio is brilliant and intense, yet under firm control of rhythm and tempo. She sings the Adagio cantabile exquisitely. And the Allegro finale has exceptional weight and depth to it.

She lets the music speak for itself and take its own time, while imposing nothing willful or arbitrary on it. She lets it tell its own story, which still seems painted so vividly. Every detail registers clearly, yet all sound like a natural exposition of what the piece simply is.

In the first movement of the “Tempest” Sonata, Op.31, no.2, the contrasts in tempo, mood and intensity are the essence of it all. Her slow tempos are very slow, yet flow with exactly the right sense of proportion. The faster sections seem like extensions of the slow interruptions. The famous ghostly recitatives in this movement, which are very difficult to pedal properly, are exactly as they should be. It is all remarkably powerful and dramatic, even when soft and slow, maybe especially then. Not many pianists can “explain” this movement in so convincing a fashion.

The warmth and deep lyricism of the Adagio are remarkable. And her galloping finale is done with just the right amount of restraint to maintain the wonderful sense of passion churning just beneath the surface.

Fliter’s Appassionata can be placed among the great recordings of this sonata, and I’ve heard most of them. For me the summit of the “Appassionata” Sonata was reached most convincingly by Rudolf Serkin, Solomon and Myra Hess (and also maybe Nicholai Medtner, better known as composer than pianist). But even next to those, Fliter is dramatically convincing, serious, powerful and simply magnificent. It is the kind of artistry that makes comparisons completely irrelevant and leaves me vainly striving to put into words something that’s ineffable. You just have to listen to it.

After her two Chopin albums it was clear that the Gilmore Artist Award, which she received in 2006, was well and wisely chosen. If anything, this Beethoven CD is even finer and surely some of the finest Beethoven playing that can be found. That she seems to be pursuing an upward curve artistically is an affirmation of the good that an award like the Gilmore can do. May she long continue in the same direction! I look forward to whatever she chooses to play.

Details Box:
Genre: CD review: Ingrid Fliter, piano
What: Ludwig van  Beethoven Piano Sonatas Nos. 8, 17, 23
Label: EMI Classics 0 94573 2
Release date: June 7, 2011