Argentinian pianist Ingrid Fliter has won plaudits for her interpretations of Chopin, and her Preludes have received particularly high praise. In a well-constructed programme as part of the Southbank’s International Piano Series at St John’s Smith Square, she contrasted single works with some sensible key relationships, but in essence mostly stand-alone in the first half, with the tour de force of the complete 24 Preludes in the second half. This gave a strong sense of build to the programme, with the first half really preparing the listener for the concentration required for Preludes.

Ingrid Fliter © Anton Dressler
Ingrid Fliter
© Anton Dressler

She began with a beautifully soft tone in the Nocturne in B major, Op.9 no. 3. The rippling runs were initially not all perfectly smooth, possibly due to the distraction of the venue admitting latecomers rather noisily to the balcony. Once all had settled, however, the Nocturne began to dance, and Fliter took flight in the turbulent central section. She is a highly physical performer, often stamping out rhythms with her foot. When I saw her perform the Ravel G major Piano Concerto recently, this felt rather intrusive, but somehow here less so. The physicality of her stage presence enhanced her performance and served to highlight Chopin’s wilder moments in contrast to the more lyrical or lighter writing. This first Nocturne was followed by the Scherzo no. 4 in E major, Op.54, and here again her playing was lively and physical, with some particularly deft trilling, and an impressive final flourish. In the Nocturne in D flat major, Op.27 no. 2 Fliter could focus on demonstrating her cantabile playing, allowing Chopin’s melody to really sing, and the high grace notes in the closing passages rang out like tiny bells. She even took the unfortunate early applause before the final cadence in good spirit with a smile.

The Mazurka in C sharp minor, Op.50 no. 3 has swirling, swaying polonaise-infused rhythms, and Fliter’s physicality was back (along with the foot stamps). The relentless chromatic rising towards the end was breathless, before a poignantly sad fall into the dark conclusion. No chance of early applause here, as Fliter went straight into the Fantaisie-Impromptu Op.66 (in the same key) without a break, which was highly effective. The rapid outer sections were like a whirlwind, and even in the singing central section Fliter’s pace did not slacken as much as some pianists, maintaining forward momentum. She added subtle, tasteful changes of ornamentation here too to the repeated central melody. After this torment, the first half came to a close with the Grande valse brillante in E flat major, Op.18. Perhaps more straightforward emotionally, Fliter took this at a steady tempo, characterising the varied material beautifully, even bringing out interest and detail in the rapid coda, often rather thrown away as a virtuosic flourish by lesser pianists.

The 24 Preludes, although not necessarily designed to be performed as a set, have incredible impact when heard as a cycle. Fliter added to the systematic harmonic progression from each prelude to the next by linking some more explicitly. One would follow another attacca, such as from the Mazurka-esque 11th into the moody 12th, and from the slow, delicate 13th into the brief yet throbbing 14th, which she took at a rapid pace. Then there would be gathering pauses after some, particularly the more substantial, such as the turbulent 8th, reminiscent of a Brahms Hungarian Dance, and the so-called “Raindrop” 15th prelude, with its lyrical melody framing a darker funereal middle. Here, Fliter’s rubato was exquisitely expressive, yet without destabilising the repeated notes that gave rise to its moniker, and her central section was darkly ominous, even threatening. The well thought out pauses and attaccas created a convincing architecture to the set, no mean feat for such a varied selection of preludes varying in length from just over thirty seconds to nearly seven minutes. Her 4th was not too slow, but suitably introverted, Fliter almost prayerful, head bowed for the final cadence. Yet when power and extroversion was needed, it was certainly there: the Con fuoco 16th could not have been more fiery, making the Fantaisie-Impromptu from the first half appear almost tame, and she was on her feet for the final chords of No. 22. A spellbinding display, this was an unforgettable performance of this incredibly testing collection.

After enthusiastic applause, Fliter treated us to some Ginastera, one of his Danzas Argentinas,  “Danza del gaucho matrero” (Dance of the arrogant cowboy). Fliter’s highly percussive and insistent rhythmic pulse was mesmerizing, and she made the piano sound almost like tubular bells in the ringing section building to the climactic glissando, which she finished standing. A highly energetic, typically physical end to a memorable evening.