These chamber renderings of the Chopin
concertos follow the world premiere
release of the Japanese pianist Fumiko
Shiraga’s versions on the BIS label
They invite direct comparison.
Canadian Pianist Janina
Fialkowska employs the same forces –
string quartet plus double bass - but
the recording sounds very different.
The chief reason is the recorded sound
which combines a reverberant spaciousness
with a closeness which does not sound
acoustically authentic; the double-bass
sounds boosted. The result is that the
recording has none of the incisive,
natural chamber-like bite of Shiraga
on Bis. The recording does not do Fialkowska’s
playing any favours either. The fuzzy
reverberation makes her sound as if
she is over-pedalling, which I do not
think she is.
Shiraga and the Yggdrasil
Quartet were a revelation in this music
and the clarity of Bis’s chamber sound
combined with superb playing made a
compelling case for the theory that
Chopin might have conceived these works
for dual orchestral/chamber performance.
Since the Shiraga recording, scholars
have unearthed further circumstantial
evidence that Chopin might have played
them in private performance with chamber
There are some slight
differences in the arrangements but
nothing too material. Unlike Fialkowska,
Shiraga thumps in at the beginning of
No. 1 which I think perverse for it
destroys the later effect of the piano’s
original entry after the opening tutti.
Apart from that, the philosophy is similar,
both pianists occasionally playing along
in the tuttis.
The strings play in
a more romantically mannered and fulsome
style than Shiraga’s and this, because
of the way they are recorded, contributes
further to them sounding less chamber-like.
However, there is grace and beauty,
something that characterises Fialkowska’s
piano playing. Her Chopin interpretations
have been much admired for their sophistication
and integrity. She never thumps, and
she plays her rapid runs with delicacy,
never attempting to indulge overt virtuosity.
However, in these concertos she and
her players lack the fizzing energy
that Shiraga imparts to these youthful
works. In the slower romantic passages
Shiraga turns her phrases with an exquisiteness
that for me generates more emotion.
In comparison, Fialkowska’s playing
lacks contrast and personality, not
only compared with Shiraga but also
with pianists in the better recordings
of orchestral versions. For example,
Pollini, sometimes accused of being
overly clinical, has more zip and contrast
in his old recording with the Philharmonia.
Nevertheless there are things to admire.
I thought the slow movement of the Second
Concerto particularly successful, the
ensemble playing with beauty and more
contrast than elsewhere.
There is, though, a
drawback, particularly in that movement
but also off and on throughout, something
that may disqualify the recording outright
for some. There appears to be, among
the string players, a snorter. I am
talking noisy intakes of breath here.
The snorting starts early on in the
opening tutti of No. 1 and builds into
a serious irritant. This sort of thing
may be tolerable in a live concert but
on one of your own CDs that you have
to live with, it may be accounted unacceptable.
Irrespective of this
distraction, and even the comparatively
inferior recorded sound, my verdict
has to be that, as a chamber version,
these performances cannot compete with
the spectacular playing on Bis.
Far more important
than the above considerations is the
fact that this recording is a milestone
in the miraculous comeback of a very
fine pianist. It is only three years
ago that Fialkowska was told by a surgeon,
who had just removed a rare and dangerous
tumor from her left arm, that she would
never play two-handed ever again. This
disc is testimony to the courage and
tenacity of an artist who said that
getting to play again seemed more important
to her than life itself.