Janina Fialkowska

Winner of this year's BBC Music Magazine Instrumental Award, the Canadian pianist was hailed by Arthur Rubinstein as a 'born Chopin interpreter'. In this 2010 interview she talks about her acclaimed Chopin recordings and her return to performing after a battle with cancer.

Janina Fialkowska

Chopin is a composer you’re exceptionally close to and has defined your career. What is it about him that speaks to you?

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First of all, if you have a name like mine you have to like Chopin. Being Polish and Chopin go together. His music held a whole people together when there wasn’t even a country. Secondly, Chopin writes so absolutely exquisitely for the keyboard. He understood the piano better than any composer and set the standard with his 24 Etudes. His pieces feel good on your hands. Then of course I find his music to be so compelling. It’s one gorgeous melody after another – a fabulous wave of emotion. It has depths and complexity, the rhythms of the heart of his country and all these colours. For me it is the most fascinating piano music ever written.

Two of your Chopin CDs are out now – your 2008 recital and the re-released double disc set of Etudes and the Second Sonata. Can you tell us about these recordings?

The double disc re-release came out in Canada in the 1990s but never made it to Europe. And then I got ill [with cancer]. But now that I’m back and this Chopin recital CD has made, well, quite a big impression, my husband thought it’d be good to re-release the other one for non North-American audiences. The Chopin recital was a work of love for me. All the pieces are among my favourites; I’ve played them since I was young and a lot in recital. I made this CD quite quickly in a village in the north of the province of Quebec in a lovely little hall. I’d finish recording and come out and look at the St Lawrence River and the mountains. It was extremely enjoyable. Me, Chopin and the wilderness.

Between these two CDs there was a huge crisis in your life when you battled with cancer in your shoulder. How did this experience affect you as a pianist?

It affected me in two ways. The first purely physically as my arm can no longer do certain things, but fortunately I can still play Chopin. There are certain very long pieces I no longer work on, like the Brahms Concertos, which I used to play a lot. I can only practise three hours a day now, as there’s one replacement muscle doing the job of three. But as long as I can play Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Schumann and my French composers, then I’m perfectly happy. Mentally, I think it’s brought a certain element of serenity into my playing. It’s made me grow up, and literally concentrate on the music. I’m not trying to prove anything because there’s nothing to prove. There’s a certain freedom and peace that I never had before.

The pianist Arthur Rubinstein was a particularly crucial figure for you – how did being his friend and studying with you affect your interpretation of Chopin?

Hugely. Mostly in so far as he made me aware of things – he never told me to do things. As performing artists we’re just there to transmit to the audience what was in the composer’s heart. That’s a technical thing as well and you have to learn how to project these sounds and emotions to the audience – in Chopin Rubinstein had the most glorious sound, and even the quietest sound would reach the back of the hall. He made me aware I should think about these things. He also made me aware of how much in Chopin is based on folk rhythm, and how it should never be metronomic, it should be based on a heart beat. The third thing he found important is the structure of the pieces. Knowing, planning the piece from the first to the last note, and holding attention to the end.

What’s next?

Oh well, next year’s the Liszt year! And I am making a Liszt CD. Also on ATMA I’ve made a recording of the first two of Mozart’s Four Piano Concertos arranged in chamber version, and I’m recording the second in February 2011. There’s also a live from Vancouver CD with the Vancouver Symphony of the two Chopin Concertos, recorded the day after the Olympics. It’s truly live with no patch sessions. On the Liszt there’ll be unusual Liszt – I call it lovable Liszt – there’ll be a piece from the Soirées de Viennes, the Benedictions de Dieu dans la Solitude, Gretchen, the Faust paraphrase, Weinen Klagen and all the Chopin songs transcribed by Liszt. I can never ignore Chopin completely.

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Interview by Rebecca Franks