Just over a decade ago, acclaimed classical pianist Janina Fialkowska discovered a tumour that would leave her left arm paralysed.
After fears she would never play again, innovative surgery to take a muscle from her back allowed the 61-year old to rebuild her career. Yesterday she was in London to pick up an award for her latest album.
Ms Fialkowska, who has built a reputation as one of the leading Chopin interpreters in the world, told The Independent: “I am an extraordinary lucky person”.
Yesterday, she was awarded best instrumental CD of 2012 at the BBC Music Magazine Awards for her disc Chopin Recital 2. Her one-time mentor Arthur Rubinstein called here a “born Chopin interpreter”.
“I’m overwhelmed by the prize,” she said. “I’ve devoted most of my professional life to the music of Chopin and it’s nice to have my playing recognised in this way.”
Ms Fialkowska, who is part Canadian, part Polish was “pushed into” playing the piano by her mother at the age of four “but I took to it right away.”
She discovered the music of Polish composer Chopin at the age of 11. “I was so blown away at that age, my heart practically stopped. I couldn’t believe anything could be so beautiful. I said, right, that’s what I want to do.” She added that the composer runs in Polish blood.
She has played with orchestras around the world including the Royal Philharmonic, The Scottish National Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
“This is a profession where one improves through years of experience,” Ms Fialkowska said. “When you start it’s all instinct and talent and athleticism. Then you dig deeper and deeper. The deeper you delve into it the more you find.”
On the eve of a European tour in 2002, she discovered a large swelling on her left arm that became too big to ignore. Within 10 days later she was in one of the preeminent cancer centres in the US, and an MRI scan had confirmed the worst.
She said: “When I woke up and they said it was cancer and it would have to come out, I didn’t ask about my lifespan, I asked about whether I could play the piano again.”
Cancer of the arm was so rare that the centre had only seen 16 cases in its history. After the malignant mass was removed, her arm was left paralysed. Two months later, she underwent surgery to reconstruct it, using a muscle taken from her back.
While Ms Fialkowska had thought she would play again “the only difficult part was after the muscle transfer surgery I was not allowed to move my arm for two months. Then I thought: ‘Did this surgery work?’.”
While her arm remains handicapped, there is enough movement to play the piano. It took five months after the surgery to recover, and seven more to play a concert again. “I had to build up the muscle and teach it what to do. This was a muscle that had been sitting in my back not doing anything,” she said.
While the slightly restricted movement has forced her to reduce the repertoire she plays – “there’s some I won’t touch particularly some Brahms and Liszt” – her style, she said, has actually improved.
“Now I have to give orders to my left hand, which is a result of the surgery I have to rethink all those pieces I played all my life. I’m finding all sorts of wonderful things because I have to concentrate on them. I hope it has brought a new element.”
She is moving to Germany with her husband after 30 years in Connecticut and after an “insanely busy” six months she will scale back her touring.
The cancer returned three times, but after six years free of the disease Ms Fialkowska can plan long term again. “You stop thinking more than one day ahead. Six years free is when you start making plans,” she said.