Since the Polish-Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska returned to the stage three years ago after a long time out, her story has earned her legendary status.
Diagnosed with a crippling cancerous tumour in her left shoulder, she underwent surgery which led to more surgery when the cancer was found to have spread to her lungs: she had six major operations between 2002 and 2007.
But her determination to play never faltered, and she astonished her surgeon by telling him that she would be satisfied with limited mobility in her affected arm. What has led to more general astonishment is that despite what normal people would call a severe handicap - and despite the fact that her physical stamina is not what it was – her solo Chopin is remarkable by any standards, and has resulted in two prize-winning Cds; the Cd of two Mozart concertos which she has just released on the ATMA label has lovely limpidity and grace.
She is now on an international tour which has brought her to London for a performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor with the Royal Philharmonic, under the direction of the young French conductor Fabien Gabel, and I wish I could have reported more warmly on it than I must now do.
A warning was sounded with the orchestral opening, which was altogether too loud and forceful, particularly in the Cadogan’s sensitive acoustic: the sound was rough and the dynamics crude, and Fialkowska’s entry had an answering lack of compromise. As the pianistic passage-work developed one could sense her delight in her muscular precision, but one waited in vain for the requisite poetry to come through.
She held the stage with eloquent authority in the Larghetto, but there was no magic. The piano itself had an unusually hard tone, and it may be that a clean line is her current goal with this music, but to play it without a trace of warmth, delicacy, or tenderness was a thoroughly perverse achievement.
Part of the problem may have lain in inadequate rehearsal time, and part must certainly lie with the conductor, who went on to despatch – I use the word advisedly - Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony with startling brusqueness. I left as he and his band were launching into the overture to ‘Figaro’ as an encore. Enough already.