The third of the eight concerts that comprise the South Bank's International Piano Series 2007/08 was witnessed by a near-full audience this week at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The exceptional Polish-Canadian pianist, Janina Fialkowska, was the soloist in a recital of Mendelssohn, Schubert and Chopin. Fialkowska is probably one of the least 'showy' of all the pianists that have either played, or are scheduled to play, during the series: Steven Osborne, Maurizio Pollini, Lang Lang, Piotr Anderszewski, Angela Hewitt, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Richard Goode are the others.
She is also one of the cleverest and most resilient. Only five years after the diagnosis of cancer in her left arm and pioneering surgery to enable her recovery, she is back performing to audiences, most of whom are probably unaware of her remarkable story. Those that are would not be able to pinpoint any radical difference in her playing, either. Thankfully, the 'sympathy vote' is redundant in Fialkowska's case.
Instead, it is to her repertoire, and its programming, that clues to her new epoch of performance are found. No Brahms or Liszt here – their left-hand exertions have meant that, in her own words, she has had to 'say goodbye' to them – but her inclusion of Classical and Romantic works, including Chopin of course, points to a new direction. It's a new step Fialkowska has taken supremely well. The concert began with four of Mendelssohn's Songs without Words. One the longest of the entire collection, 'Duetto', Op. 38, No. 6 in A-flat, was the most impressive: the finely melodic, interweaving voices were captivating. Such a standout performance could only overshadow the other three songs, as assured as their performance was, especially the concluding 'Spinnerlied', Op.67, No. 4.
Schubert's Piano Sonata in G, D894 followed. No doubt this was meant to be a fitting contrast with the selected Mendelssohn and Chopin works that framed it. But the famously epic proportions of this particular sonata sat a little uncomfortably in context, despite another confident, if sometimes introspective, performance.
After the interval we were treated to six works by Chopin, and it was here that Fialkowska's renditions were at their most passionate. The Barcarolle in F-sharp, Op. 60, is conspicuous in Chopin's oeuvre because of its programmatic element: a Venetian gondoliere's love song. Fialkowska's performance of this work was much like her approach to Mendelssohn. But she also offered four waltzes (Op. 34, Nos. 1/3; Op. 70, No. 2; Op. 64, No. 2), and her performance in this genre, especially, was like no other: she brought to the first three of them an unexpected turbulence that the concluding, most well-known C-sharp minor waltz struggled to top. In fact, only the finale, Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20, could rival the waltzes for their dramaticism.
By Chris Dromey