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Fryderik CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano concerto No. 1 in e-minor, op. 11 (1830) (chamber version) [41:26]
(Allegro maestoso - Romance (Larghetto) – Rondo (Vivace))
Piano concerto No. 2 in f-minor, op. 21(1829) (chamber version) [32:42]
(Maestoso – Larghetto – Allegro vivace)
Janina Fialkowska (piano)
Chamber Players of Canada: J.Crow (violin), Manuela Milani (violin), Guylaine Lemaire (viola), Julian Armour (cello) and Murielle Bruneau (double-bass)
Recorded Ontario, Aug 2004
ATMA ACD2 2291 [74:08]

These chamber renderings of the Chopin concertos follow the world premiere release of the Japanese pianist Fumiko Shiraga’s versions on the BIS label (see review). 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 strings.

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.

John Leeman



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