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Utrecht, 16 October 2017

Interviewing Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska, a major interpret of Liszt and member of the jury during the 2017  Liszt Competition in Utrecht, was also an excellent oppotunity to remember her legendary mentor Arthur Rubinstein. A fascinating interview that took place in the lobby of the hotel Karel V in Utrecht..

Willem Boone (WB): What is it like to be on the jury of the Liszt competition: is it hard work, is it fun or is it both?

Janina Fialkowska (JF): I have been on quite a few jury’s but this is one of the most pleasant and harmonious ones! There are seven of us, which is a nice number. I know most of the others and we get along well, even if we disagree. Everybody admires everybody, which is unusual. There are no tensions and that’s heavenly, because we have enough stress dealing with decisions!

WB: Aren’t you tired of Liszt yet?

JF: You are prepared, but sometimes you get tired of certain pieces of Liszt ( very few), I got “sick” of La Contrabandista.. There are only a few composers that I could listen to all the time: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, but other than that, no!

WB: What are you paying attention to when listening: sound, technique, interpretation or everything at the same time?

JF: There are different levels, but on a very basic level I am looking for a clean performance in good style. Beyond that, I am looking for colour, imagination and beautiful sound. I haven’t heard any banging during this festival, it’s extraordinary! The pre-screening must have been wonderful. The real thing is someone who makes my heart stop.. It happens sometimes when you are exhausted and right from the first note, you feel awake and light!

WB: How often does that happen? I remember that I attended most of the semi-finals of the 2nd and 3rd edition and one day, I heard the B-minor sonata six times in a row. There was only one performance that struck me, the others were fair but nothing out of the ordinary..

JF: It happened once in this competition, one candidate was really strong and made my heart jump. It’s great when you feel that someone is going to be successful! During competitions, you often hear nothing that is going to change the world or make it a better place. By the way, in general those who played the other programme (the one that didn’t include the B-minor sonata, WB) fared better!

WB: How difficult is it to listen objectively to pieces that are played so often like the B-minor sonata?

JF: It’s smart to avoid the sonata, because it’s a monster work! It’s a dangerous piece: you should learn it at an early age, because it can develop. It’s hard to be objective, but hopefully we are grown up enough to have a lot of tolerance. I understand these kids as I have been through competitions myself. It’s only when I feel that they don’t give everything, that I am not interested. You really should be exhausted after you have played the sonata!

WB: Do the members of the jury vote independently like at the Queen Elizabeth competition in Brussels or the Chopin Competition in Warsaw or do you discuss performances?

JF: It’s the same as in Brussels and Warsaw: no discussion officially . Also here there are no points but it’s a simple voting system with either a yes or a no.

WB: As far as the music of Liszt is concerned, you often hear that his is acquired taste, do you agree?

JF: Everybody’s music is acquired taste, I remember that my father didn’t like Mozart! Liszt has been little known for a long time and his music, often only a handful of works, was often badly played.  That’s different now because of competitions and thanks to people  great Liszt pianists like Leslie Howard, Gyorgy Cziffra, Barenboim,  Argerich  , and even myself. I was considered a specialist until I injured my arm. After my recovery I had no problems with Mozart, Chopin and Beethoven, but I thought Liszt was over, since I can’t play pieces like the concertos, the sonata, the Dante sonata and the Mefisto Waltz any more. I was very unhappy about it until I realized that Liszt wrote thousands of pieces that I could still play so I recorded another cd with some of this music. It’s impossible that people say they don’t like Liszt, because he is so multi-faceted: there is the religious, the cruel (Well no, never cruel, demonic), the happy Liszt.. He had an attractive personality and as a colleague he was great. I didn’t get bored for a second during this competition, except for La Contrabandista. The latter was a dedication to George Sand, whom Liszt didn’t particularly like.

WB:  Can you give examples of the happy Liszt?

JF: The Valse-impromptu, some of the etudes, some of the transcriptions are hilarious. He has a sense of humour, for instance the Bagatelle sans tonalité.

WB: Almost nobody dislikes Chopin, yet a lot of people have a hard time with Liszt, why do you think he often has the reputation of a composer who wrote a lot of empty and loud music?

JF: I know people who don’t like Chopin! Liszt needs more people who play his music and he needs more variety: not always the same works, some of the lesser known music such as the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses is fabulous. Chopin is the composer I feel closest to, Liszt liked Chopin and they both understood the modern keyboard so well, their music is exquisitely written. Liszt took much longer to find the perfect way of writing for the piano, but he lived much longer. The first version of his études was impossible, but he made them playable. The late pieces sound incredibly hard, but they fall beautifully under the hands, that’s what these boys Chopin and Liszt had in common! I adore Schumann, but he is always a bit awkward to play, Brahms is definitely difficult to play, Ravel also had a great understanding of the piano.

WB: When did your relationship with Liszt start?

JF: Not early, not until I was 19 years old. I studied in the school of Cortot, who did play Liszt, but his pupils were snobby about his music. I played a few of his études d’exécution transcendante, then I discovered the sonata and that’s how it started. In 1986, the year of the celebration of Liszt, I toured with the 12 études d’exécution transcendante and the Variations on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Sagen. I might have been the only woman by then to play such a programme. That’s how I got known. Later, I was asked to do his Third Piano Concerto, an unfinished short piece that I performed a lot.

WB: Is that the concerto that Liszt wrote for Sophie Menter?

JF: No, that’s another concerto, this one is shorter. It was written at the same time as the other two concertos, that were revised by Liszt, but not this one. In 1989, a young doctoral student found it either in Budapest or in Weimar, I am not sure. I premiered it in Chigaco and recorded it. It  is extremely difficult and lasts only twelve minutes,  it can’t be played by itself. It has a lovely melody in the middle.

WB: Were you the only to have ever performed it?

JF: No, there are other Hungarians who did it, Jeno Jando as well. It’s not a terrific piece, it’s more a curiosity. It’s so hard that you think: “What’s the point?” I did it for three years and then people didn’t ask for it any more.

WB; What’s Liszt most important quality according to you?

JF: The many facets of his music, he composed more than anyone. There is such variety of styles, as well as the development of his personality. He was a lady killer and he was religious, he was a fascinating character who wrote fascinating music. The theme of Faust is recurrent in his music, like Florestand and Eusebius for Schumann.

WB: Which performances of Liszt impressed you the most?

JF: Maybe unexpectedly,  I love Rubinstein. He didn’t do a great deal of Liszt, but he understood his style, for instance in the 12th Hungarian Rhapsody, but then again, he played anything like no one else, with nobility. One of the best Liszt recitals I heard, maybe 30 or 40 years ago, was by Barenboim, when he still practised! I admire my friend Leslie Howard and go to any of his cd’s when I want to know how a certain work should be played. Apart from that, I blank, which pianists would you mention?

WB: At first, I had a hard time with Liszt and felt as if I sinned while listening to his music, but the first pianist I can remember was Nelson Freire with the sonata (Janina nodds), but the one who won me over was Claudio Arrau!

JF: Arrau, he was definitely up there! I heard him in the 70’s at Lincoln Center and it was absolutely the greatest sonata I have ever heard!  And I am crazy about Cziffra, he was so captivating in his madness: he had an understanding that was fabulous.

WB: Ashkenazy who didn’t really care about Liszt, did one of the most incredible Mefisto Walzes and his Feux Follets too was amazing!

JF: Yes, I know that recording. I was not too fond of Lazar Berman, but when he showed up in New York to play all of the 12 études d’exécution transcendante, it made a huge impression, it was a blast! And I heard Martha Argerich play the sonata live!

WB: (enthuses): Really?! Wow, I am probably her biggest fan and I envy you!

JF: It was do die for, it just poured out with such instinct! She also played the Fantasiestücke by Schumann.  Her Bach is  sensational too. The live Liszt sonata must have been in 1971 or 1972, she came every year to New York. I went with Jeffrey Swann, Emanuel Ax and Garrick Ohlsson. Martha is so natural  and every note is alive!

WB: Again, I envy you, whereas I heard her about 70 times, even the first time in a full recital (April 1979 in Utrecht, the Netherlands, WB). And last year, I was lucky enough to hear he play Gaspard de la nuit in Lugano… Are you actually jealous of her abilities?

JF: NO, not in the slightest. I know my place and she is somewhere else...way above me.

WB: Ohlsson is also a heck of a pianist if not very well known…

JF: He is fine and yes, he should have had a better career. You mentioned Eugen Indjic earlier, he should play more in the US, he is American!

WB: Your colleague Leslie Howard once gave a masterclass and a young girl played the Faust Paraphrase. He asked her what the opera was about and she had no clue. He was obviously gobsmacked, is that unforgivable for you too?

JF: Yes, absolutely. You should at least listen to a cd with the highlights. People take incredible slow tempi, whereas in the opera it goes faster!

WB: But you can still play it well if you don’t know the opera?

JF: No, you have to know the opera, you have to be a complete artist. People like Horowitz knew a Beethoven quartet, all the great pianists had a certain culture. I was once in New York with Rubinstein and Emil Gilels and his wife were invited for lunch. Rubinstein had stopped playing and he loved listening to chamber music. He asked Gilels whether he knew the Dissonant Quartet by Mozart, Gilels didn’t know it, so he put on the record and Gilels’s face lit up, there were tears on his face. He was in his 60’s, but he didn’t know the music.

WB: As to the B-minor sonata, would you call it his greatest masterwork?

JF: Among his works for piano, yes. There are certain pieces I have a passion for, like the 2nd Ballade. It breaks my heart that I can’t play it any more…

WB: Do you agree that it is a tricky piece to bring off, maybe not so much technically, because a lot of young kids play it flawlessly, but more in terms of structure, to play it as a whole, unified piece and pay attention to all the transitions. Arrau is one of my heroes and he succeeds very well, but I heard Cherkassky, another great pianist, who was much less successful!

JF: Yes, it’s a piece where you need maturity and overview of the piece to know where it’s going. It can be a big bore, you can certainly kill it!

WB: What are the highlights of the sonata for you? For me, one of them are the descending scales just before the fugue.

JF: The entire middle section and the ending are extraordinary. The long ending is perfect, you can’t go too slowly, you have to keep it fluent. Yes, these scales are magic.

WB: Another impressive moment for me is the stretta, just before the final pages, where I often regret that pianists don’t held the pedal long enough, since the piano can sound so orchestral here!

JF: Yes, it can seem hollow at the top if you don’t keep the pedal!

WB: Do you know that Saint Seans transcribed it for two pianos?

JF: Yes, Leslie told me about it, I haven’t heard it. Saint Seans and Liszt together, that must have been curious.. All those transcriptions that Liszt wrote: Rossini, Chopin, Berlioz, he covered such a stretch of people. And Salieri taught Liszt harmony for Christ’s sake! Liszt said he didn’t teach him about musicality, but he learnt a great deal from Salieri.

WB: A few questions about Chopin…

JF: Oh boy, I love him!

WB: Rubinstein qualified you as a `born Chopin player`, that´s no mean praise coming from him?

JF: Unbelievable, he was so very generous, he helped me launch my career and got my career going!

WB: The magazine Piano News wrote that you have “a soul connection” with Chopin, do you feel the same way?

JF: That’s nice! Yes, I do. Unabashedly, not because I want to sound arrogant, but when I play Mozart or Chopin, I am not afraid. I may be wrong, but I feel comfortable, whereas with others, I am searching, particularly with Beethoven. I never play a programme without Chopin, I relax with his music 

WB: On your last cd, you play among others the 4rth Ballade. The Gramophone mentioned your performance “ a triumph”. Would you call it one of his most glorious pages?

JF: It’s Chopin’s Liszt sonata!

WB: Are the last pages as difficult as they sound?

JF: No, it’s not difficult, the only difficulty is not to panic and keep my tempo down. Every note is part of a melody, it’s very vocal. If you slow down the coda of the 4rth Ballade, it’s a beautiful melody. Sing it in your head and play melodically as you would sing it, but the tempo is a bit faster. You wouldn’t believe it, but that’s where my French training helps, I did a lot of solfège. I just imagine Christa Ludwig or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sing it.

WB: Isn’t that effective with any composer you play?

JF: No, Chopin has very subtle inflexions you can figure out by singing, other composers are not as vocal.

WB: I always wonder about the climax at the end, then there is a silence, then the five descending chords and finally the last pages. Is it true that this silence shouldn’t be pedalled? Is it in the score? I understood that Rubinstein pedalled them to avoid that people start applauding.

JF: That’s it! I just played it in Portugal and they started applauding, I couldn’t believe it! I don’t pedal them, I put my head down and hope they don’t clap.

WB: Did you read the comment on YouTube about your performance of the 4rth Ballade saying “risk-taking, uncompromising playing, she reminds me of Gilels”?

JF: I never read comments on YouTube, I am bad with computers, my husband is much better. The comment is nice! Any of these old boys were so extraordinary, you hear a recording and say: “That’s Gilels or that’s Argerich!”

WB: Rubinstein thought very highly of you, what was he exactly for you: a mentor, a teacher, a colleague?

JF: He was a mentor, he would dispute he was my teacher, but still.. I played the Barcarolle for him and he played it for me, that’s a pretty good lesson! At the end of his life, he was blind, but he still demonstrated things at the piano. I was like a granddaughter to him and stayed with him. He was entertaining, well read, funny, generous and I was nervous and shy. Half of me adored being with him and the other half didn’t. Because I was afraid I could not live up to his expectations..

WB: How did you get to know him?

JF: During the first Rubinstein Competition. I had no expectations whatsoever and didn’t make it to the finals. One person in the jury gave me a zero and Rubinstein said he would leave as the chairman if I dodn’t make the finals. He sought me out and wanted to know more about me. I told him I was about to start law school.

WB: Did you really want to give up?

JF: I had no career and had to make a living! I was 22 and didn’t want to teach kids.. I was accepted in a very prestigious law school in Canada. Rubinstein went on a farewell tour and asked that I played the next year in all the cities (44 in total), that traced my career.

WB: He was unusually candid about his own shortcomings, since he said he couldn’t play the Chopin études. Yet he had no mean technique either and until the end he maintained his abilities!

JF: He was a funny man and had this complex about his technique, it’s ridiculous! He had a most natural technique, he couldn’t see the point of working so hard when it all came so naturally. He never practised more than 20 minutes, he also wanted to have fun,  he read a lot for instance.

WB: I saw pictures of his hands and his pinky was a long as the other fingers, is that correct?

JF: Yes, it’s true. He was not a good practiser. I once came to his hotel in New York when he was practising Chopin Second Concerto that he knew very well of course. He made a mistake, then redid it, made the same mistake, redid it again, made the mistake for the third time and went on without stopping. That evening during the concert it went well!

WB; And yet, with all his qualities, I thought he lacked a certain amount of diabolism à la Horowitz?

JF: It’s a myth that he heard Horowitz and had this complex, o please…He probably worked for two hours and thought it was a lot. His son Johnny also said he never practised! I have the most fun when I practise, I have  problems on stage, because I am not a stage animal, but he loved performing. I heard him a lot, around 15 or 20 times. He was my idol, it was he I loved the most. Otherwise I admire Horowitz a lot too, as well as Michelangeli, Serkin, Richter, Pollini, Argerich, Lupu, Zimerman…

WB: As I asked before, I had the feeling that he was always walking on the sunny side of the road, didn’t he have a demonic side?

JF: There was a dark side, but he had a happy philosophy. I have one particular memory though, he didn’t get along with his wife and had marital problems. Once I came back to his apartment in Paris and the house was dark. He was sitting in a room with all the lights off, I didn’t believe it, but he, the happiest man, had been crying. I was shy and tried to cheer him up. He said: “You are sweet, but I enjoy being miserable!” . At the end of his life he went blind, almost overnight, but he took it so wonderfully. I never saw him depressed, except for that day. He was a lucky man, he didn’t worry, even blind he wanted to go to movies and sit on the first row..

WB: He was a model of longevity!

JF: Indeed, he was 96 when he died, and he was really well until 92, he had no old men’s brain. There was this healthiness and sanity to his playing, you don’t know how much I miss him…. And there was such honesty, no “me, me, me”, first there was the music. He was revelling in beautiful music. I have never been to concerts where people left more happy, not frantic. It was wonderful, I didn’t feel that with anyone else. He had the most beautiful sound, it filled your heart. I really miss that guy… And he had charisma, there was an aura, light around him, something supernatural. His recordings are nothing compared to his live concerts. The live recording from Moscow comes closest, he did practise a lot for that concert, since Richter and Gilels were in the audience, he had to..

WB; I hope you don’t mind me asking this question, you have been quite severely ill, which kept you away from the instrument, you thankfully recovered but to which extent did this change your attitude on life or on music making?

JF: (touches wood): I thought it might take away some of my nerves.. People say you take things less for granted after such an experience, but I still get nervous and I never took things for granted. I hope to not get sick again. I get tired much quicker and as the French say, “Il faut ménager ses forces”, but other than that, things are going fine.

WB: In an interview that I found on YouTube, you said your goal was not music, but a vegetable garden…

JF: I got a flower garden, because vegetables need daily attention. I got 500 bulbs waiting for me.. It’s a beautiful garden, my husband got really frantic about it.

WB: Were you serious when you said that?

JF: No, I meant I wouldn’t add new repertoire and I am reducing now. However, my European manager asked me whether I wanted to play the Panufnik Concerto next March and I had to say to myself: “You can do it!”

WB: You could have said no, right?

JF: I haven’t said yes yet..

WB: I don’t know any composer by the name of Panufnik?

JF: He is part of the generation of Lutoslawski and Penderecki. I met him. I premiered his concerto in the USA.

WB: Is it a modern concerto?

JF: It’s a crossing between Bartok and Penderecki.

WB: In your bio I read that you played around 60 concertos?

JF: Not only concertos, there are also pieces like the Totentanz and the Chopin Fantasy on Polish airs.

WB: That’s pretty much all the Mozart, Beethoven concertos and…?

JF: both Brahms concertos, Rachmaninov 2nd and 3rd and a lot of French repertoire. When you are young, you can do it, you are fearless. You don’t really know it’s not possible, you just do it..

WB: I was pleased to see that you played the Moszkofski concerto!

JF: Yes, it’s great, you know what else is great? The Paderevski concerto.

WB: In an interview you said: “The more control you have over everything, the more spontaneous you sound.” That sounds contradictory to me!

JF: It’s a complete contradiction! Take a pianist like Zimerman: you just think he composes when he is on stage, he knows every note exactly.

WB: Is there music that makes you truly happy? I listened to Saint Seans’s Carnaval des animaux today and it always makes me smile…

JF: Anything by Mozart or by Schubert is heaven. In the music of Schubert there is something very powerful, the simple beauty of it all..

WB: You don’t often play in the Netherlands, do you?

JF: Only once, Liszt First Piano Concerto in Amsterdam with Kondrashin conducting and Rubinstein in the audience. I remember they also played Sheherazade, Rubinstein came round and said: “I took a nap during Sheherazade.” I also remember Kondrashin was very nervous, later on I heard he defected the next day..