Chopin: Recital: Etudes, Opp. 10 & 25; Piano Sonatas Nos 2 & 3; Impromptus Nos 1-3; Fantasie-Impromptu in C sharp minor, Op. 66

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COMPOSERS: Chopin
LABELS: ATMA
WORKS: Recital: Etudes, Opp. 10 & 25; Piano Sonatas Nos 2 & 3; Impromptus Nos 1-3; Fantasie-Impromptu in C sharp minor, Op. 66
PERFORMER: Janina Fialkowska (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: ACD2 2554

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It’s not often that one has the opportunity to hear a very fine pianist transformed into a great one before one’s very ears. The juxtaposition of these two releases, both of them outstanding, gives us the opportunity to do just that. Between the one and the other, in 2002, Fialkowska’s career looked as though it would be destroyed by a malignant tumour in her left arm.

Following its removal she underwent a rare muscle-transplant, which miraculously restored her dexterity. I confess that though I’d long admired her, I had no idea quite how exceptionally good she had become even before this traumatic (and transformative) hiatus.

The two-CD set here was recorded in the 1990s and is in many ways a triumphant achievement in its own right, excelling numerous accounts by more famous artists. Big-boned, dramatically powerful and intimately eloquent by turns, her playing is marred only by certain rhythmic distractions, including occasionally distorting rubatos. 

In the post-crisis single disc recital from 2008, her sound is richer, deeper, more varied; her rhythm is stronger, and her colouristic palette is wider and more perfectly controlled.

There is a new and unmistakable joie de vivre, an almost improvisatory abandon and, frequently, a sense of sheer unbuttoned fun not normally associated with either Fialkowska or Chopin. She shows a greater flexibility and buoyancy of rhythm, yet without losing sight of the whole.

Where previously her virtuosity was sometimes compromised by an inexactness of detail in passagework (the rather amorphous fast semiquavers in the first and last etudes, for example), now every subdivision is clear, shapely and dynamic.

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Nowhere is Fialkowska’s newly enhanced Romanticism more captivating than in her boldly individual, highly elastic account of the famous C sharp minor Waltz, which may annoy those unfortunates who ‘know how it goes’ but will surely be a revelation and a delight to many more. Jeremy Siepmann