Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska has Polish blood in her veins (her father is Polish), and she was described by her pianistic idol, Arthur Rubinstein, as “a natural born Chopin interpreter”. This assertion was more than confirmed by a carefully executed and beautifully nuanced lunchtime concert of music by Fryderyk Chopin at London’s Wigmore Hall.

Janina Fialkowska © Peter Schaaf
Janina Fialkowska
© Peter Schaaf

Janina Fialkowska has an unusual back-story: she studied law for a while before deciding that music was her true passion. A prize-winning performance at the inaugural Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel-Aviv in 1974 secured her idol as her mentor, and Rubinstein was instrumental in launching her international career. In 2002, in the cruelest twist of fate for a pianist, she was diagnosed with a rare cancer in the top of her left arm, and between 2002 and 2007 underwent a series of groundbreaking muscle-rebuilding operations. Meanwhile, in another bizarre turn, she had her work “stolen” in the notorious Joyce Hatto recording scandal.

Some concert-goers, and even some performers, may feel a programme focusing on a single composer looks dangerously like a list, but Chopin is such a master of passion, pathos, elegance, tristesse, and light and shade that this could never be the case. And in Fialkowska’s expert hands, we enjoyed the full range of emotions and pianistic colours, from the portentous rumblings of the opening bars of the Polonaise in E flat minor, Op. 26 no. 2 to the winding, charming Waltz in A flat, Op. 64 no. 3, and the delicately ornamented, prayerful serenity of the Nocturne in E flat, Op. 55 no. 2.

Chopin exploited the Polonaise, a Polish dance in 3/4, initially for its virtuoso potential, but by the time he had been exiled from Poland for four years, he explored the sprightly rhythms of his national dance as a vehicle for more heroic expression. The Polonaise in E flat minor is defiant and upright, with its ominously dark opening figure leading to a dancing second motif in a more triumphant major key. From the outset, Fialkowska seemed completely at ease in this music, much as if she was performing at home for friends, and she brought to the work characteristics which were evident throughout the concert: a persuasively warm tone, clarity in the passagework, rhythmic vitality, and a clear understanding of the architecture of the music. In the Scherzo in E which followed – a work which, more than any of Chopin’s other Scherzi, reflects the meaning of this word, a “joke” – in its capricious motifs and sunny melodies, she marshaled all the elements expertly and brought great beauty and serenity to the minor-key middle section.

The Ballade no. 2, a study in chiaroscuro, with a lilting opening melody redolent of a Sicilienne, which cuts to a torrent of anguished semiquaver scales and arpeggios, was a bravura display of contrasting material, its squalls perfectly offset by the gentle Nocturne no. 16 in E flat which followed, a work which contains perhaps the most achingly tender closing cadence in all of Chopin’s piano music.

It is in the Mazurkas that we find Chopin at his most nostalgic. He took the rough Polish peasant dance and refined it, as he did with the Waltz and the Polonaise, elevating it to drawing room “art music”. They are some of Chopin’s freshest and most original works, yet all retain features of their folk origins. The three performed by Fialkowska were well-chosen, allowing her to perfectly highlight rhythmic and emotional possibilities of the form: the first brooding, soulful and poignant, the second lively and rustic, and the third imbued with “zal”, that untranslatable Polish word which suggests an inexpressible longing and bittersweet melancholy.

The closing Scherzo in B minor was “bold and stormy” (Schumann), in which the full range of Janina’s technical prowess and musical insight came to the fore. Expression, clarity, neatly-judged rubato, forceful yet melodic fortes all combined in a pianistic tour de force, briefly marred only by a couple of missed notes at the top of the extended right-hand runs. A sparkling Waltz in E minor (op. posthumous) was the delightful encore, catching the mood perfectly: at once playful and serious.