The Singapore International Piano Festival, now in its 28th edition, may be considered a victim of the pandemic. The festival had to be cancelled in 2020, and because of overseas travel restrictions, the 2021 festival featured only Singapore-based pianists. As if to show that the virus has yet to be vanquished, festival director Lim Yan caught the bug, while the Japanese-Canadian pianist Kyoko Hashimoto had to cancel, having been diagnosed at the eleventh hour. There was, thus, a huge sigh of relief when Argentine pianist Ingrid Fliter, presently based in Italy, arrived safely to deliver a magnificent recital distinguished by creative programming and beautiful tone production. 

Ingrid Fliter
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra | Nathaniel Lim

A common theme of “Vienna” united the three recitals of this year’s festival. Fliter’s programme opened with Haydn’s E minor Sonata (Hob.XVI:34), its Sturm und Drang generating an uneasy feel of underlying tension which pervaded the first movement. Applying judicious pedalling, colours and textures were vividly brought out, which continued through the slow movement and seemingly light-hearted finale. Only the joker in Haydn could make a minor key movement sound positively cheerful. 

This thread of implicit humour continued attacca into Beethoven’s “Hunt” Sonata (Op.31 no.3), which piqued the ears with an ambiguous tonality at its outset. After settling into E flat major, the fun began in what was to be one of his more anarchic solo works. Vertiginous finger-twisters were offered to the right hand, while the tonally suspect fanfares returned without apology. The Scherzo’s stampeding hoofbeats befitting the “hunt” moniker were upended by abrupt changes in keys, as if the scent had been thrown off time and again, complete with the ensuing mayhem. The third movement’s Menuetto provided rare lyrical moments, with its pastoral feel punctuated with a series of chords in its Trio section. This was spoofed by Schumann (Faschingsschwank aus Wien) and Saint-Saëns (Variations on a Theme by Beethoven) to great effect. The furious chase of the tarantella finale (more like a dog running after its own tail) completed a first half that transitioned seamlessly from austerity to outright jollity. Fliter, who fully understood this anarchy, was in total command at the helm. 

The recital’s second half opened with Scarlatti’s lyrically meditative Sonata in C sharp minor (K.247), serving as the prelude to Schumann’s Études symphoniques (Op.13) in the same key. Here was a masterstroke of preluding, an art of performance practice thought to be long lost, but one returning to favour. The variations were taken at an expansive and magisterial pace, but never dragged, which allowed slower numbers to be better savoured before being swept aside by the fast and virtuosic ones. The posthumous etudes were included, strategically placed to offer contrast, but not necessarily in the published order. Three of these were heard before that sublime Variation 9 in G sharp minor, with its intertwining voices, but why had that most sublime D flat major Posthumous Variation 5 been omitted? 

Ingrid Fliter in Victoria Concert Hall
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra | Nathaniel Lim

Then came the final and valedictory march Variation 10, which would guarantee the loudest applause, but there was silence instead. Fliter has not raised her arms in triumph, but continued on to Posthumous Variation 2, followed by that elusive D flat major, a thing of beauty. With that coup of rule-breaking, the entire set closed on a beatific quiet, as the second half had begun. Plaudits also go to an alert audience which sensitively followed and heeded Fliter’s cues by not applauding prematurely, thus preserving the magical moment. 

There had been murmurings among the audience that none of Fliter’s famed Chopin had been programmed. Their patience was, however, rewarded with three Chopin encores: a Nocturne (Op.27 no.2) to die for, and two Waltzes from the Op.64 set, no.2 followed by no.1, better known as the “Minute Waltz”. All of these were either in D flat major or C sharp minor, the most harmonic and logical follow-ups to the Scarlatti and Schumann. The recital summed up in a word: genius.