Felix Mendelssohn supposedly wrote his First Piano Concerto in a hurry. Composed in 1831, the work sounds wild too, as if he threw scales and arpeggios at a page with the blind conviction that virtuosos would pull it off. On a program with unusually slow tempos in Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony and Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides, Argentine pianist Ingrid Fliter gave a cursory performance of Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in G minor that unluckily recalled its hasty composition history.

Fabien Gabel © Gaetan Bernard
Fabien Gabel
© Gaetan Bernard

Guest conductor Fabien Gabel started the evening with a remarkably slow tempo for The Hebrides. Gabel communicates phrases with his wrists, which move from loose and relaxed to a tensely firm fist, depending on the mood. This makes for exquisite dynamic control as well as a tidy way to hold and push tempos. He was just a bit too slow here, but the Symphony made up for it in that renowned fortuitous melody for which the work is so beloved, building it into a positively golden omen.

The concerto that followed was disappointing. Fliter briskly walked on stage, throwing her skirt over the bench, and fidgeted right up until seconds before her grand entrance of octaves. She did not play from memory, swabbing pages, which further gave the impression that she had hurried into this piece. Mendelssohn’s concerto gets to the point right away. Octaves set fire to a blaze of runs, tight turning phrases in the right hand that scurry up the keyboard. Often, the soloist is tasked with terrifyingly difficult arpeggios up and down the keyboard that are merely embellished accompaniment for the melody that the symphony has taken up. It’s a bit backwards, but it’s fantastic fun to watch pianists’ hands blurring in a sea of motion.

Fliter demonstrated technical agility, but there were several moments when her left hand was just behind her right hand, causing a slight hiccup. More importantly though, this concerto is not only a dazzling show of virtuosity; there are calm, serene moments of musical introspection. Fliter’s touch sounded hard and confrontational. Fliter has built her reputation in part on Chopin, with a silver medal in 2000 at the International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw to her name, but the Chopin waltz she played as an encore also sounded forceful and impersonal, although Fliter did fling her hands up to a brilliant height a few times.

Turning next to Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony, Gabel leveled another supremely slow tempo. Unlike the Hebrides though, when the Allegro non troppo arrived Gabel electrified the beat. It took off in at a shimmering rate. The first-movement clarinet solo rang pure and true; the brass struggled to hold intonation but still managed a full golden sound. After a jaunty second movement, the Allegro molto vivace practically raced, skittering and galloping toward the close.

The last movement is always an abrupt, solemn surprise. Thoughtfully, and in keeping with the rest of the concert, Gabel held a longer-than-usual pause between the last two movements, turning and raising his hands so gradually it looked like he was pulling all its emotional weight with him. And perhaps he was, for what followed was pristinely melancholy. As the final note waned, Gabel again held time back, waiting, letting the sound settle before dropping his hands – and his audience – back into reality.