It says a lot for this disc that, when Gramophone’s Editor chose it as his Recording of the Month and asked me for five listening points, I came up with nearly four times that number. No single interpretation of Chopin’s Preludes will ever be enough but – just as she demonstrated in her previous disc of the two Chopin concertos (3/14) – the Argentinian Ingrid Fliter seems to be able to achieve individuality seemingly effortlessly, with cherishable and memorable results.
Truly innate Chopin players are rarer than you might think. From obvious examples such as Rubinstein and Cortot via Argerich and Freire (what is it with these South Americans?) I would add to that illustrious list Fliter. She has that magical way of creating an easeful rubato without ever sounding studied, and holds Classicism and freedom in perfect accord. Add to that a clarity of vision and a tremendous sense of purpose and you have a mesmerising set of Preludes. She doesn’t ever sweeten the more acerbic moments: in the Second Prelude, for instance, she makes no attempt to soften the contours of the left-hand phrases in the manner of pianists such as Trifonov, who is altogether more consoling here. And in No 4 Fliter lays bare with utter naturalness the insistent falling semitone, forming a piquant contrast with the following Prelude, in which she gives Cortot a run for his money in terms of shimmery, shadowy elusiveness. In Fliter’s readings you truly feel the complexity and ambiguity of works once described by Schumann as ‘sketches, beginnings of études…ruins…all disorder and wild confusion’.
One of the aspects that particularly compels about this CD on repeated listening is the way Fliter encompasses the diversity, the sometimes shocking juxtaposition of the Preludes, but within a range that gives them a coherence, a sense of an interpretation as a whole. Take Nos 6 and 7, for instance: here they acquire a kinship despite their different moods – and despite the fact that No 6 is pretty slow, possibly too slow for some tastes. But I find myself hypnotised rather than (perish the thought!) bored: contrast it with Kissin’s approach, which ruffles the melody rather too insistently. Then compare her with Trifonov, whose live Preludes from Carnegie Hall provide a thrill a minute but who seems altogether too fast here. In fact he isn’t by most standards: it’s simply that Fliter draws so much from the music.
It’s not just in slower preludes that Fliter flouts received wisdom (something she did so gloriously in the concertos, scotching the notion, aided and abetted by Jun Märkl’s charismatic way with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, that these are little more than a pianistic vehicle); she does it too in the 16th Prelude, where the étude-like moto perpetuo of the right hand is effortless but suitably ‘notey’ thanks to her pinpoint phrasing, while the muscular left hand gains in power rather than steamrollering its way in, as can happen in some readings (Kissin, for instance, who is relentless in his strength). By comparison, Trifonov is faster but he doesn’t develop such a sense of menace as Fliter.
After this, the songful Allegretto of No 17 comes as balm, here given the range and story-telling quality of a Ballade. It starts innocently enough; but what is striking is the way she grounds it with the deep left-hand notes, the repeated A flat at the end tolling like some great bell but never overshadowing the interplay of the other lines, which Fliter balances to perfection.
She is a virtuoso of the first order but she holds this in reserve, so when she does unleash her full technical armoury, it’s extraordinarily potent. She does so in No 14, for instance, matching Trifonov in powerful élan. On the other hand, the 19th Prelude eschews its Vivace marking. It’s daringly dreamy, perhaps too much so for some tastes but not mine. The final trio of preludes takes us from the proto-Prokofievian toccata figuration of No 22 via the most restrained haloed playing in the daringly withdrawn F major, Fliter really bringing across its tinkling musical-box qualities, which is all the more touching when it is banished by the seismic drama of the final Prelude.
Of the remaining works, the two Nocturnes are particularly fine, the Mazurkas sometimes a degree less inevitable-sounding than some, though she bewitches in the quick-shifting moods of Op 6 No 1, which prefaces the third Op 9 Nocturne very effectively. The final Nocturne on the disc (Op 27 No 2) takes nothing for granted in spite of its fame, less lushly beautiful than some but altogether more complex, more intriguing. The recording captures well Fliter’s innate beauty of sound, encompassing the dynamic range with ease. A gem of a disc.