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The world's most acclaimed new pianist gave her London debut a fortnight ago and received just one review. Ingrid Fliter is the 2006 Gilmore Artist, a title given every four years by a panel of international experts who secretly observe selected targets over many months. The last two winners were Piotr Andeszeski and Leif-Ove Andsnes, both fliers in the highest spheres. The $300,000 Gilmore is a passport to the piano elite, worth more in peer prestige than any televised competition, yet Fliter’s recital passed almost unnoticed – and this, for all the usual reasons of too many London openings and premieres on the same Wednesday night.
Not wholly unheard, however. On the strength of her recital, the BBC signed her as a Young Generation Artist and EMI Classics announced a record deal. The first half of her Chopin album has caused such buzz in the troubled company that it is going to be released on-line this summer, before she can even come back to finish the session.
The night after her debut, hearing that she was friendless in London, I toiok her to dinner. The story of her life, unfolding over summer artichokes, turns out to be the usual struggle against impossible odds, complicated by growing up in Buenos Aires under military regimes and hyperinflation. Her grandparents were Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. ‘There was always a piano at home’ she relates. ‘My father took me to the movies to see old opera films. I started piano lessons with a teacher who taught me to play by ear. I gave a public recital at nine years old, not knowing how to read music.’
This unorthodox approach allowed her to assimilate music organically. ‘It never felt artificially added. It was part of my body, a physical pleasure that I had when growing up.’ At 15 she left school and went to the music conservatory, playing a Beethoven concerto on debut. On graduation, she was invited to a party for Martha Argerich, the national piano heroine. ‘Who wants to play?’ said Martha. Ingrid, nearest the piano, shot off Chopin’s third sonata from memory. When she finished, Argerich handed her the keys to her apartment in Geneva. ‘Stay as long as you like,’ she said, ‘go and study with Vitaly Margulies in Freiburg.’
Ingrid’s father, a shipping engineer, raised money for her journey and upkeep. ‘I was 18, a very protected teenager. I was the little girl of the family. I didn’t have a nightlife, I had no boyfriends. I came into the big world, innocent.’ Winning scholarships here and there, giving recitals to pay for food, she put herself through eight years of study in German and Italy before, in 2000 she entered the Chopin competition in Warsaw. ‘I was on my own. My parents could not afford the journey. An old friend of mine, an eighty year-old piano dealer from Italy, came to support me. That month, I never felt so inspired. When they announced the winners: sixth prize, fifth prize … I kept waiting to hear my name. After third prize, I thought they must have forgotten me. When I came second, I was so thrilled. I had been frozen with fear that I might win.’
The Chinese winner Yundi Li, commandeered the star treatment, leaving Ingrid back where she was, in the shadows, earning pennies from little recitals – ‘you cannot believe how little they pay’ – and being exploited by shady managers. In Holland, she says, she was paid for two concerts out of ten. But cognoscenti had clocked her talent and the Gilmore spies were on her trail. Invited to the programme’s festival in Kalamazoo, Michigan, she thought she was there to make up numbers. When the director told her over a private dinner that she had been selected as the next Gilmore Artist, she could not believe it. ‘I never thought such an award would be given to an unknown pianist,’ she says, still amazed.
With her radiant blonde hair, her wide-eyed naivety and an infectious, natural giggle, she seems a natural for international stardom, but what captivates listeners is her high musical seriousness and her willingness to court danger. ‘Yesterday I risked a lot,’ she says of her Wigmore Hall recital. ‘Musically I gave all that I could. I made mistakes at the end of the Chopin sonata but I was playing so fast, there was such energy … I was boiling.’
Ingrid Fliter is a one-off, the kind of pianist we have not seen in years. She plays Beethoven with an old-master’s touch and Chopin with reckless passion. With hands too small for Tchaikovsky crowd pleasers, she is taking on the Prokofiev second concerto, one of the most rebarbative pieces in the repertoire. Hers is an incandescent blend of sublime touch and sudden lapse. Not since Arthur Schnabel has a pianist cared less about precision and more about the meaning of what is being played.
‘I am dealing with a lot of pressure, a lot of expectation,’ she admits, fearing that at 33 she may have left the ascent too late. She asked Alfred Brendel for a lesson and he supplied the reassurance she sought. ‘He told me, I am very glad for you that things went so slow. I myself never expected to have a career before 50-55 years old. Believe me, this took away a lot of pressure. I could enjoy every moment of my life much better.’
In her first studio session, in Suffolk, she found listening to her takes with a sympathetic producer was ‘like being operated on without anaesthetic’. The perfection required by note-pickers is anathema to her temperament. Hearing a first, unedited dub, I was captivated by the freshness of her playing, the almost improvisatory flair. Yet she dwells painfully on the slightest of errors. ‘I am very critical. I don’t allow myself any kind of weakness. I need to learn to forgive myself,’ she says.
She has shared her life in Italy for the past ten years with a Russian clarinettist, Anton Dressler, a stepson of her piano professor. Now she is looking to move to Paris or London, where the action is, or Lisbon where it is not. The BBC is clamouring for vacant slots in a choc-full calendar. She is not back in Britain until March, in London until June, by which time her download will have split pianophiles into mechanical accurists on one side and fantasy seekers on the other. Myself, Ive had it with the typewriter kind of pianist. Ingrid Flitrer makes the hair on my nape stand out straight. She dares and, usually, she wins.
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]