The thing about being Polish, says pianist Janina Fialkowska, is that you only need a drop of Polish blood “to have this huge tie to the mother country. It can be Des Moines, it can be Osaka – an old Polish lady will come backstage and start talking. Poles stick together. Their country was occupied for much of their history, and what held them together was Chopin and his music.”
Fialkowska, 61, might just as well be talking about the component that has played a “holding together” role in her own life. Born in Montreal, the daughter of a Polish father and an Anglo-Canadian mother, she gravitated towards Chopin from an early age, making all her important debuts with his music and studying extensively with legendary Polish pianist Arthur Rubinstein.
Then, a decade ago, cancer struck and her career was put on hold. She made her comeback three years ago with an all-Chopin CD that was met with superlatives. Fialkowska knows how to distil Chopin’s charm and spirit without making his music sound soft-centred or showy. Since then she has consolidated her return to the musical frontline – not just with follow-up CDs but with a string of performances, culminating this month in a UK tour with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Fialkowska says she “hates” talking about the seven-year hiatus in her career, during which she had a series of operations on her left arm. But she admits it makes “a good story. I don’t want the ‘pity factor’ but when an article about my arm comes out, hundreds of emails come in saying, ‘Your story inspired me.’ I’ve never found it amazing. It’s something I went through, and I’m very lucky.”
That sense of life regained has transformed her music-making: her playing now has a spirit-of-the-moment freshness and spontaneity that many musicians strive for but few attain.
It has also opened her eyes and ears to repertoires she never previously considered. Confined to three-and-a-half hour practice sessions, due to occasional tiredness, she finds some of the music she used to play – the Brahms concertos, much of Liszt, even some Chopin Preludes – too wearing. While she sounds a note of regret, she seems relieved to be shot of Rachmaninov. She has also consigned middle-period Beethoven – notably the “Waldstein” and “Appassionata” sonatas – to her past, saying “combative anger doesn’t go with my nature”.
These staples have been replaced by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Mozart and the Lutoslawski concerto, which she has learnt in honour of the Polish composer’s centenary: she will play it for the first time in Toronto in October “and I hope elsewhere”.
But doesn’t Schubert strike her as temperamentally oceans away from Chopin and Liszt? Yes, she says, adding she is glad to have come to Schubert relatively late in her career. Chopin always leaves her feeling “a little tired but not emotionally drained”, but Schubert leaves her “emotionally exhausted. His music has a serene exterior but he is one of the most complex composers of all. It’s like a walk through placid countryside – no grand canyons, no waterfalls – but if you look at everything that’s going on, you have life and death, love and hate. The exterior seems so innocent, and that element must be there in performance.”
Eager as Fialkowska is to add such music to her repertoire and to play more Mozart – her new recording of Piano Concertos 13 and 14 is out this month – none is likely to shake her prime allegiance to Chopin. I ask her about Chopin style: what are the key reference points? She feels it is important to acknowledge his French influences, adding that she will “probably get murdered by the Poles for saying so”. But she is right: the composer spent most of his adult life in Paris, giving his music a “French subtlety and elegance – always combined with an aristocratic nobility, passion and reserve” instilled by his Polish blood.
Questioning the more emotional approach of many of today’s younger-generation pianists, she says “I don’t think Chopin wears his heart on his sleeve. It’s not flashy music.”
Yes, but surely it makes complex technical demands that require a certain type of virtuosity? “You try to make it sound as simple as possible, and to do that you have to work darned hard,” she replies, referring to accounts of how Chopin played his own music. “The goal is to make it sound as if you are composing on stage. You let the music speak for itself – you don’t need to put in clever things of your own. But you do need to understand the underlying rhythms.”
Meaning? Fialkowska admits that, just as Rubinstein taught her by demonstrating rather than talking, she finds it difficult to explain the technicalities to her masterclass students. As in most composers’ music, style is a mixture of instinct and learning. She talks of passages in the Chopin Mazurkas where “a longer note is followed by a shorter one. The key is not to hold the longer note much longer. A millisecond longer is enough to give it a different feeling. The important thing is not to do it too obviously.”
Which just about sums up the style of this pianist, whose experiences of life have palpably enhanced her projection of music.
Janina Fialkowska plays the Chopin F minor concerto on January 25 at Cadogan Hall, London, as part of a five-concert UK tour