Her mother noticed at birth that she had “Bach-fugue fingers” and began giving her piano lessons as soon as she could sit still. Her famous younger brother called her “his Minerva”. Their teacher initially considered her the more promising pianist and recommended her to Goethe with his highest accolade: “She plays like a man.”  Her compositions – mostly choral, vocal, or for the piano – numbered 500 or more and received their first performances at a popular musical salon she hosted at the family home, where she conducted, accompanied, and performed solo and in chamber groups. She died suddenly of a stroke at age 42. Barely six months later, her distraught 38 year-old brother and soulmate succumbed to the same trauma, one which had already claimed their grandfather and parents. Genius circumscribed by genetics – the baleful lot of Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn.

Shiyeon Sung © Robert Torres
Shiyeon Sung
© Robert Torres

The pieces by each programmed by the Boston Symphony to open the second half of the season display the youth exuberance of composers in their twenties: Fanny was 25 when she composed her only extant completely orchestral work, Overture in C major; Felix 22 when he dashed off (reportedly in 19 days) his Piano Concerto no. 1 in G minor while traveling through Italy. Strings and woodwinds exchange heavy sighs to open the Overture before a series of instrumental fanfares herald the transition to a livelier episode where a galloping figure vies with a more lyrical theme until the grand conclusion. It’s an elegant, lightning-quick ten minutes which can’t help bring a smile to your face and set toes tapping and heads bobbing. More mechanical than mercurial, this performance, however, suggested that neither orchestra nor conductor was yet completely at ease with the piece.

Pianist Ingrid Fliter has made a specialty of Chopin, immersing herself in the cultural of his time. She brought all that knowledge and experience to bear infusing his contemporary’s First Piano Concerto with unaccustomed gravity and drama. This was not a naive interpretation based on flash and virtuosity, though there was plenty of both. The piano entered like a thunderclap over the roiling waves of the orchestra’s storm-tossed sea, Fliter pedaling and deploying discreet rubato to give weight, color and emphasis where many opt for speed and brilliance. The orchestra heard and responded in kind, with darker hues and drama of its own. Fliter didn’t hesitate to linger or lighten her touch as the concerto continued headlong, without interruption, through the second and third movements. A singer would need lungs like bellows to sustain the long lines and rapid runs Fliter spun in the effervescent final movement, with the orchestra keeping pace. Fliter’s encore highlighted her interpretation’s debt to Chopin as she limned the more subdued drama of his Nocturne no. 8 in D flat major with the same expressive attention to color and detail.

Shiyeon Sung, Ingrid Fliter and the Boston Symphony © Robert Torres
Shiyeon Sung, Ingrid Fliter and the Boston Symphony
© Robert Torres

Like Mendelssohn’s concerto, Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony was written in a burst of sun-drenched creativity. It is also played without pause, though without the same pell-mell quality. There is so much variety of invention here that, in the wrong hands, the symphony can sound like the musical equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Shiyeon Sung, who was the BSO’s Assistant Conductor from 2007-2010, avoided that pitfall with precision and elegance and the mercurial quality missing from the overture. The performance was vivid, theatrical, and skillfully paced with a permeating warmth and a glow, though more muted in the funereal Adagio. The final movement was a whimsical, spirited kaleidoscope of moods and colors with outstanding contributions from the cellos, Principal Flute, Elizabeth Rowe, and the entire horn section. 

Artur Nikisch led the orchestra in this symphony’s American première in 1892. It then disappeared from BSO programs for over fifty years. Performances such as this one prove why such a lapse boggles the mind.

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