Thursday, March 22, 2012

Suffering and Beauty

We live in an age where whatever it is that we do, suffering is underrated, minimized or even trivialized. In general, we want to do away with suffering. Listening to pianist Janina Fialkowska in recital last Sunday, I am reminded how an artist must sometimes go through tremendous suffering for his or her art.

After an auspicious beginning as a concert artist, launched by no less than Arthur Rubinstein, and promoted as Rubinstein’s protégée, Fialkowska went through a period of crippling depression and anxiety, so much so that she had to stop playing and seek professional help. It was only through the help of her doctors and the encouragement of Mr. Rubinstein that she gradually resumed her concert career. In 2002, a tumour was discovered in Ms. Fialkowska’s left arm. Only after surgical removal or the tumour and muscle-transfer procedure was she able to resume playing again.

I cannot presume to know the effects these experiences must have had on Ms. Fialkowska’s spiritual and musical - I very much believe that the two are very much connected - growth, but I cannot help but guess that such challenges must have deepened her insight into her art.

Ms. Fialkowska opened her recital with Schubert’s Sonata in A Major, Op. 120, D. 664. A pensive and songful middle movement is framed by two outer movements that are gentle and joyful. The pianist made much of the expressiveness called for by the music and the beauty of sound. Many years ago, I attended Vladimir Feltsman’s much anticipated Carnegie Hall recital debut, where the pianist began his recital with the same Schubert Sonata. I must say that Ms. Fialkowska brought out the depth of the music much more than Mr. Feltsman did.

The pianist continued with three pieces by Franz Liszt, the Valse-caprice No. 6 from the Soirées de Vienne, S. 427 and the transcription of the Waltz from Gounod’s Faust, S. 407. In between these two pieces, Ms. Fialkowska played what I feel to be Liszt’s greatest piano work: the Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, from the composer’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S. 173. For the Valse-caprice and the Waltz from Faust, Ms. Fialkowska unleashed all her considerable powers as a virtuoso, bringing out all the pianistic fireworks one associates with pianists like Horowitz – her performances were on that level.

In the Bénédiction, it was more than beautiful playing that distinguishes her performance, but a lyricism and depth of feeling, as well as an absolutely magical use of the pedal that remained with me long after the concert.

The second half of the concert was devoted to the music of Chopin. Ms. Fialkowska was one of Arthur Rubinstein’s favourite students, and she must have received many valuable insights from the great pianist. But Ms. Fialkowska’s performance of Chopin was very much her own. For me, the highlight of this portion of her recital was her playing of two mazurkas, the early B-flat Major, Op. 7, No. 1 and the later C-sharp Minor, Op. 50, No. 3. From the high spirit of the early Mazurka to the piercing sadness of the C-sharp Minor, Ms. Fialkowska captured the essence and the soul of the composer in these elusive dances. We must be grateful to Ms. Fialkowska for playing the less frequently played Polonaise in E-flat Minor, Op. 26, No. 2, which is less flashy but no less great than some of the more popular Polonaises.

Vladimir Horowitz said that the Scherzo in B Minor, Op. 20, calls for the pianist to demonstrate his demonic as well as angelic sides. Ms. Fialkowska certainly brought out both aspects of this stormy work, and her playing of the middle section, when the composer quoted from the old Polish Christmas song Lulajże Jezuniu, was as beautiful as one can imagine it to be.

We are thankful that the Vancouver Chopin Society for bringing an artist as distinguished as Ms. Janina Fialkowska to share her artistry with us. Although she appears to be in the best of health, I could not help, while hearing her play, thinking of the pain artists go through for the sake of their art. It is a cruel twist of fate that an artist endowed with talent should be afflicted with ailments that would potentially cripple them. What is it about great music that draws us to continue to probe its many depths, in spite of great suffering and difficulties? The mystery in our search for beauty is that the journey may be one of many impediments. But the rewards, if not the promise, of the music, makes it a worthwhile journey.

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