Janina Fialkowska, piano: An All-Chopin Recital, Kay Meek Centre, March 30, 2017.

Janina Fialkowska has every right to be considered Canada’s ‘Grande Dame of the Piano’.  Polish by heritage but Canadian by birth, Fialkowska is now entering her fifth decade of performing and recording at the highest levels in Canada and internationally.  She has also championed musical outreach and cultural engagement programs along the way, and still shows no signs of slowing down in her 65th year. In fact, the reviews of her recent recordings are possibly more glowing than they have ever been. The pianist has an enviable pedigree, with initial studies in Paris and at the Juilliard School in New York. Following a prize-winning performance at the inaugural Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in 1974, Rubinstein became her mentor, and helped initiate her first recordings for RCA. He regarded her as ‘a born Chopin interpreter’. This distinguished all-Chopin concert was a celebration of the release of her new Chopin CD for ATMA, and anticipates an appearance at Wigmore Hall in London later in the month. It was nice to see a strong and enthusiastic response from the full house at West Vancouver’s Kay Meek Centre: the organization aims to expand its classical music focus in the future.

This was a ‘mixed’ Chopin recital, sampling from the vast array of Chopin’s compositional forms, but always revealing of the artist’s long association with the composer and her full internalization of Chopin’s style and feeling. Presenting the works in this manner perhaps lent itself to a creative flow of the type found in a salon concert of the 19th century, mixing the composer’s volatility with his repose, yet securing a telling cohesion overall.  Undoubtedly, there are the bigger pieces balancing the small, and it is useful to start with the former. 

Chopin’s massive Fantaisie in F Minor Op.49 alternates between sensitive lyrical sections and a more impassioned virtuosity, adding up to an exalted whole. Having warmed up in the preceding waltzes, Fialkowska approached this work with a commanding presence. She played with both power and subtlety, navigating its technical demands with fluid assurance, and combined incisive rhythms with coaxing ease. Most impressive was her resonant lower sonority ringing through all registers without overpowering her lyrical phrasing.

The first and last of Chopin’s demanding Four Scherzi also made an appearance: Scherzo No.4 in E Major is more psychologically probing than its predecessors, and was played first.  Here melodic lines were kept clean and light, aided by judicious pedaling and attentive nuancing. The combination of truly heartfelt rubato with deeply-forged phrasing served the emotive middle section particularly well. Scherzo No. 1, an impassioned virtuosic work whose outer sections demand a great deal of stamina, was actually the last work in the concert. Again, Fialkowska’s sterling command produced an ideal balance of technique and lyrical sensitivity. But she also had some grand and thrilling gestures in store – dramatic pauses and very emotive rubato – that had the audience leaping to their feet at the final chords.

Chopin’s Second Ballade was another overtly virtuosic work, requiring tremendous fire and bravura technique to navigate its demands. Fialkowska seemed initially more at ease with its lyrical expression than its more taxing bravura yet, as the work progressed, the impassioned nature of her reading gained shape, becoming more crisply defined in the more demonstrative passages and allowing a most effective contrast with the lyrical closing measures.

The concert began with the dramatic E-flat minor Polonaise Op.26 No.2 – not the easiest work to start with – and what the pianist lacked in rhythmic bite and crispness, she likely made up in character. While there was an interesting flexibility in her approach, there clearly have been more brazen attempts to convey Chopin’s pride in his Polish heritage than we heard here.

One often thinks that any performing artist maintains a uniform emotional posture over a concert, but there can easily be some variation and, certainly, an initial rigidity. It was interesting that, when the pianist eventually got to the Waltzes, she seemed to relax much more completely into the music and the setting. A smile crossed Fialkowska’s face just before she began the Waltz in B minor Op.69 No.2 and she proceeded to spin out the finest detailing, pedaling with greater subtlety, and shaping phrases with even more lyrical tenderness. At this moment, the recital became less of a performance and more of an intimate ‘revealing’, as if she were sharing a cherished story with friends. The A-flat major Waltz Op.42 had a similar spontaneity of feeling, moving forward with a clear, singing line, highlighting the wit and joy of the work with a sparkling natural sonority.

The pianist’s singing line, combined with her natural rubato and strong poetic sensibility, seemed to be the hallmark of the remaining smaller pieces: the last Nocturne from Chopin’s op.9, the Third Impromptu in G-Flat major, and two Preludes. There were also three short Mazurkas from Op. 50. Fialkowska’s penetration of the shape and atmosphere of most of the pieces was about as close to consummate as one can get, though I sometimes might have wished for slightly more rhythmic precision and textural clarity.

What would an exhilarating evening of Chopin be without the infinitely-popular ‘Minute’ Waltz at the end? And that’s exactly what we got in Fialkowska’s dazzling reading – sending everyone home both fully satisfied and rejuvenated.  


© Mark Ainley 2017