Argentine pianist shines with Houston Symphony

Fri Mar 10, 2017 at 5:05 pm
By Lawrence Wheeler

Ingrid Fliter performed Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Houston Symphony Thursday night.

Pianist Ingrid Fliter returned to the Houston Symphony Thursday night at Jones Hall alongside guest conductor Fabien Gabel. Yet while Gabel ran the gamut from serviceable to excellent, Fliter proved uniformly brilliant.

The Hebrides Overture by Mendelssohn provided a gem of an opening with polished ensemble and tone. Also known as Fingal’s Cave, it depicts restless waters and rugged scenery that fascinated the 20-year-old Mendelssohn during a trip to Scotland. Bassoons, violas and cellos presented the undulating theme representing the ocean surrounding the Hebrides Islands. Shortly thereafter, a second theme is introduced by bassoons and cellos. This richly poetic melody is considered one of the composer’s finest, and was beautifully shaped by Gabel. He also maintained firm control of the complex scoring in the stormy development section. Given his careful pacing and expressive conducting, the Houston Symphony sounded fantastic, with several outstanding wind duets and solos.

In Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor Ingrid Fliter was an excellent and exciting soloist in a season filled with top-notch pianists. Her tone possesses extraordinary clarity when forte and incredible lightness when pianissimo. From the very first entrance, the Argentine pianist was energized and uncompromising in tempo and technique. The con fuoco marking (with fire) was integral to each note. Contrast was provided in the slightly more lyrical second theme.

A total transformation came with the second movement, Andante, which gave Fliter a chance to show her poetic side. The cellos presented a deftly controlled and beautifully played melody, which she delicately embellished with exquisite phrasing and crystalline tone. Her remarkable control of the very softest dynamics was breathtaking. Indeed, the listener needed to hold one’s breath so as not to miss the softest notes.

Another total transformation came with the last movement. After Gabel set a very lively tempo, Fliter took off even faster. Fliter proved herself a firebrand with boundless energy and technique. Gabel’s main job here consisted of holding onto the reins, and together with the Houston Symphony, he provided an impeccable accompaniment.

Fliter responded to extended applause with Chopin’s Waltz in E-flat major as an encore, bringing yet another dimension to her musical style and charm.

Fabien Gabel

As directed by Gabel, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, known as the “Pathétique,” had more mixed results. The symphony has a wide range of emotions and moods. If slow tempos are too slow and fast tempos too fast, those become muddled. A certain lack of clarity continued through much of the performance.

Following an expressive bassoon solo played by Rian Craypo, there were some tentative moments in the lower strings. The Allegro vivo section was taken too fast for dramatic effect. Clarinetist Mark Nuccio brought a measure of expressive control during a sensitively played solo. The final Andante mosso was well below the indicated tempo, making the melodic lines challenging to sustain.

The second movement was more successful, and Gabel found a nice groove for the “limping waltz” in 5/4 meter. The cellos played the opening melody with elegance, and flutes and violins added lightness to the waltz and mournfulness to the middle B section.

Gabel began the third movement march at an accelerated tempo, and it was on the edge for much of the movement. The Houston Symphony brass section, led by trumpeter Mark Hughes, became a bedrock of stability for Gabel and the orchestra. After a thrilling buildup, the movement had a rousing ending that elicited the usual premature applause.

The finale was the most successful movement. Gabel was in his element here, eliciting highly expressive playing from the orchestra. The string section, led by guest concertmaster Kevin Lin, produced a luxurious sound in the opening melody. The bassoon’s descending melodies brought the work full circle. This enormously talented conductor is worth a second look.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m Sunday.

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