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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Chopin Recital 3
Polonaise-Fantaisie in A flat major, Op.61 [12:04]
Nocturne in B major, Op. 9 No. 3 [6:21]
Nocturne in F sharp major, Op. 15 No. 2 [3:99]
Impromptu in G flat, Op 51 No. 3 [4:48]
Waltz in B minor, Op. 69 No. 2 [4:23]
Waltz in A flat major, Op. 42 [3:47]
Scherzo No. 4 in E major, Op. 54 [10:53]
Prelude in E flat minor, Op. 28 No. 14 [0:25]
Prelude in D flat major, Op. 28 No. 15 [5:27]
Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 [10:25]
Janina Fialkowska (piano)
rec. 2016, Salle Raoul-Jobin, Palais Montcalm, Québec

If you merely read Janina Fialkowska’s sleeve notes for this CD, you would have no idea of the almost superhuman strength of character, and sheer guts of this half-Canadian, half-Polish performer. In fact, in a number of interviews, Fialkovska had said that she would prefer not to bring up something truly devastating that happened back in 2002.

At that time the pianist had developed a cancerous growth on the muscle of her left arm, which necessitated major surgery to remove this, rendering her initially unable even to lift her arm to the keyboard. As she said, her fingers were fine still, but she had no control of the arm. After years of painstaking rehabilitation, she eventually regained control of the movement in her left arm, and, as early as 2010, had completed her first season with some sixty engagements in North America and Europe. By 2013 Fialkowska had won the Best Instrumental CD Award at the 2013 BBC Music Magazine Awards with her critically-acclaimed CD ‘Chopin Recital 2’ – something that seemed hard to believe, even though Rubinstein, who had helped her early career, and had, at that time, described her as a “born Chopin interpreter”, given the almost insurmountable intervening health issue she suffered.

Now sixty-six, Fialkowska has released a follow-up CD to the earlier successful issue, with a view, she says, to adding a fourth at some future juncture. With the plethora of Chopin CDs out there, she has wisely followed suit in terms of programme-planning for ‘Recital 3’, and there is once more a theme running, if not a tad loosely, through the ten tracks on the disc. It is built around some of Chopin’s late works – the Fourth Ballade, Fourth Scherzo, Third Impromptu, and, perhaps most crucially, the composer’s very last major work, the Polonaise-Fantaisie which opens proceedings, and which always tends to encourage speculation over the direction in which Chopin’s compositional genius was heading before his so untimely demise. Even the ultra-progressive Liszt found the work ‘unfathomable’.

From the outset the recording quality is excellent, and finely captures the virile piano sound right across the dynamic range. It is evident throughout all of this superb playing that the music comes first – the finely-honed and flawless technique is always there when called upon, but it’s more what poured from Chopin’s soul that we’re really hearing here. The ‘scotch-snaps’ at the start of the Polonaise-Fantaisie are despatched in a business-like fashion, as is the first instance where the typical polonaise-rhythm appears, but this finely complements the freer and more melodically-questioning sections that follow, as if we are almost seeing an unfolding of the composer’s life before us, something to which Fialkowska alludes, and which is clearly part of her plan in putting this quite enigmatic work across. But once the music builds to a climax as the main theme thunders out, here is Chopin in all his glory, triumphant to the end, and so typical of the soul, spirit and and persona of the nation that he inherited from his mother’s side.

In the B major Nocturne Fialkowska has captured precisely the scherzando (playful) marking – something seemingly rather bizarre for a piece that would usually tend to suggest the calm of night, at least at its start. This she does simply by applying the instruction more to the chosen tempo itself, than any stylistic aspect as such. There is tremendous contrast in the turbulent middle section, and it becomes more and more apparent that, in fitting in the various right-hand fioriture or decorations, Fialkowska actually has an advantage, acquired, perhaps, at the time when her left arm was returning to more or less normal function: it seems better suited to providing a solid, yet still shapely-enough platform from which to launch any right hand fireworks. Her treatment of the following F sharp major Nocturne is cast in much the same mould, with that enviable knack of keeping the interpretation essentially conventional (seemingly), while adding some little personal nuances of touch and rhythmic inflection that mark it as more individually conceived.

In the G flat Impromptu that follows, Fialkowska demonstrates another trait that only the truly-gifted artist possesses – the ability to make a piece that presents a significant, yet not overtly technical challenge to the performer appear nothing more than a delightfully fanciful and, as it says on the tin, piece of improvisation, despatched with consummate ease.

Chopin’s set of Waltzes basically comprises some extremely brisk examples, some at a more leisurely pace, and some where the tempo indication is marked Lento, or ‘slow’. Fialkowska’s next offering, the Waltz in B minor is mid-range in terms of speed, and is thus marked Moderato. There has to be a degree of freedom in defining a ‘moderate’ tempo – would it be ‘moderate’ in terms of Chopin’s lifetime, where a galloping horse would represent extreme speed, or a jet aircraft in terms of today’s world? Fialkowska’s performance here is taken at a really slow pace, her version coming out at 4:23, whereas Garrick Ohlsson and Stephen Hough, for example, on the Hyperion label, manage somewhat quicker timings of 3:36 and 2:41 respectively. Whereas Hough’s version does allude to the sadder, wistful nature of this minor-key piece, something which Ohlsson takes a step or so further, Fialkowska really stamps her interpretation with great individualism and genuine heartbreak here, which works in performance, though some listeners might find it a tad overdone for a piece the composer intended to be played ‘at a moderate speed’. That she brings it off, of course, is a tribute to her understanding, insight, and commitment.

Moreover, there are lots of different editions of the B minor Waltz out there, all with variants in the score, especially in the major-key middle section. For the most part these usually involve the right hand melody being played as a single line, or with a lower part a third apart, and replacing some dotted rhythms with evenly-spaced quavers (eighth-notes) which can make things sound slightly pedestrian. Here Fialkowska does nothing unexpected, but( especially if you’ve ever played the piece) you will get quite a jolt around at around 2:48, where she introduces a D sharp in the melody and G sharp in the bass on the first beat of the bar, and which, from the purely personal standpoint, rather seems to upset the composer’s delicate harmonic balance as he returns from B major to the original B minor. The edition used for the present CD isn’t cited unfortunately, as it would be interesting to know the source of this apparent harmonic volte-face.

However, there’s nothing as untoward in the Waltz in A flat which follows. Cast in the composer’s scintillating virtuoso waltz-style of writing, Fialkowska’s playing is more than equal to the challenge, and her technical control is flawless throughout. Again this is still very much her own interpretation, with an idiosyncratic, though still effective use of rubato at times. But this always seems so perfectly natural, and is felt nowhere more effectively than in the run-up to the quite breath-taking coda.

Unlike the first three of Chopin’s Scherzi, the fourth in E, which is the only one in a major key, is more light-hearted in conception – in as much as that can be said about any large-scale work by the composer. That said, it is still not devoid of great lyricism, but it is not as impassioned, for example, in its middle section, as its predecessors. Fialkowska’s performance is quite superb here. Again, she brings her perceptive feel for effective rubato even to the most complex passages of piano-writing, and her technical command is second-to-none throughout. The way in which she plays the final ascending scale, with such a judicious use of the sustaining pedal, is altogether the mark of a true craftsperson.

The extremely short Prelude in E flat minor – like its equally-demonic counterpart that serves as the finale of the Sonata in B flat minor – is one of those few examples in the composer’s output where melody, as such, would seem to take a backseat to pure rhythmic drive. The danger is to cast it off as quickly as possible, as a mere jumble of notes without any clearly-defined shape. There is a ‘melody’, but first you have to find it – and not every performer does, or perhaps can. By comparison, the Prelude in D flat, affectionately known as the ‘Raindrop’ Prelude is about as far removed from the E flat Prelude as it could possibly be with, as Fialkowska comments, one of Chopin’s most beautiful melodies. A tendency sometimes encountered here is that, in order to make the nickname more apparent to the listener – the constantly-repeated A flats, that become G sharp in the middle section in the minor - can become something more like water-torture, than mere droplets of rain. For Fialkowska it is more about the melody – and rightly so, of course – while still imbued with some touchingly-effective rubato along the way.

The CD ends with, to quote the performer’s assessment again, one of the greatest piano works of all time. It has always figured as a test-piece for the highest piano diplomas and, as such, rates similarly with professional soloists, and especially those who favour the Romantic repertoire. The main problem is that, in just a piece of some ten minutes, it has almost everything conceivable in terms of texture, pianism, formal structure – and, tantalizingly, some of the most challenging passages out there, interwoven with sections an accomplished amateur could almost make a fair stab at ...

However, if there is any one part that sorts the true Chopin interpreter from the Chopin player, then it’s the coda. Once again it echoes the kind of seemingly melodic chaos of the Prelude in E flat minor, but which once again does make real melodic sense once the would-be performer knows where to seek it out. Unsurprisingly Fialkowska knows exactly where to look, what to bring out at any one point and in which hand, and how to build for a stunningly effective climax and close without running out of steam. Add this to the wonderfully lyric and expressive playing that has led up to this final section, and you have a tremendous performance of an elusive piece that, in this playing, combines both real intimacy with the grandest of gesture – an individual interpretation that could barely fail to convince, enthral, and excite any listener or pianist, irrespective of their personal take on how Chopin should be played.

Chopin Recital 3 is certainly not just another CD of some of the composer’s best-loved works. It is a unique investigation and subsequent realisation of them, seen through the eyes of a pianist who possesses a genuine insight into the mind of the composer – perhaps all the more so because of their shared part-nationality, and life experiences.

Rubinstein’s astute assessment would certainly seem to be borne out by the exceptional playing on this CD, and hopefully it might be a case of third time lucky for Janina Fialkowska, when the next set of awards and honours come out.
Philip R Buttall



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