Marc-André Hamelin, (image credit: Fran Kaufman)
Marc-André Hamelin, (image credit: Fran Kaufman)

Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin has an unerring ability to tackle anything the piano repertoire can throw at him: the craggy, disparate edifice of Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata, Stockhausen’s Klavierstück IX, Villa-Lobos’ savage Rudepoema, the mannered classicism of Haydn, and the sweeping romanticism of Liszt. His latest concert, part of his residency at Wigmore Hall in 2013/14, combined peerless technical mastery, cool perfection, pristine beauty and profound musical understanding in a quartet of works by Medtner, Janáček, Ravel and Hamelin himself, with the London première of his own composition. The programme traced a darkly lit narrative from the brooding opening bars of Hamelin’s atmospheric Barcarolle, through the sprawling musical landscapes of Medtner’s Night Wind piano sonata in E minor, inspired by a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev, to the poignant intimacy of Janacek’s On an Overgrown Path and the strange night-time fantasies of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit.

Read my full review here

(image credit © Sim Canetty-Clarke)

Concerts by Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin are always challenging and exciting: a fearless approach to repertoire and unusual programme juxtapositions, combined with insightful musicianship, all underpinned by formidable technique create some of the most compelling musical experiences, and Hamelin’s latest Wigmore Hall offering was no exception.

Read my full review here

(photo credit: Julien Faugère)

Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska has Polish blood in her veins (her father is Polish), and she was described by her pianistic idol, Arthur Rubinstein, as “a natural born Chopin interpreter”. This assertion was more than confirmed by a carefully executed and beautifully nuanced lunchtime concert of music by Fryderyk Chopin at London’s Wigmore Hall. Read my full review here

Janina Fialkowska has won “Best Instrumen​tal CD Award” in the 2013 BBC Music Magazine Awards for her ‘Chopin Recital’

Pianist Janina Fialkowska wins “Best Instrumen​tal CD Award” in the 2013 BBC Music Magazine Awards for Chopin Recital 2 disc

Pianist Janina Fialkowska, who was left temporarily paralysed in her arm, has won the “Best Instrumental CD of 2012” award in the 2013 BBC Music Magazine Awards for her critically-acclaimed disc “Chopin Recital 2”, released on the ATMA Classique label. Arthur Rubinstein described Fialkowska as “a born Chopin interpreter” and Gramophone Magazine concluded that “she has done her one time mentor, Arthur Rubinstein proud.” The prestigious award comes 10 years after a cancerous tumour left Fialkowska paralysed in her left arm for two years.

BBC Music Magazine commented:

How does she do it? By some mysterious alchemy, Fialkowska only has to perform a note of Chopin and instantly it’s inimitable, indelible.”

Following groundbreaking treatment on her arm in 2003, the highly-respected pianist Janina Fialkowska has determinedly rebuilt her career as a leading international concert pianist. Now 10 years after successful treatment, Canadian-Polish Fialkowska has firmly re-established herself as one of the foremost Chopin interpreters in the world.

The award comes after a remarkably successful year for Fialkowska which included her being awarded the ‘2012 Governor General’s Performing Arts Award’ for Lifetime Artistic Achievement in Classical Music at a ceremony in May. The award is Canada’s most prestigious honour in the performing arts, equivalent to the ‘Kennedy Center Awards’ in the United States.

Fialkowska’s “Chopin Recital 2” CD is the second recording of her critically acclaimed Chopin Recital series given in May 2012. The disc includes Chopin’s Ballade No. 2. Scherzo No. 2 and a selection of Nocturnes, Mazurkas, and Waltzes including Le Grande Valse Brillante. Fialkowska is firmly established as one of the world’s foremost interpreters of Chopin and Liszt and has released five celebrated CDs in three years.

Her most recent recording features Mozart’s Piano Concertos No. 13 & 14 (K. 415 & 449) in arrangement for piano quintet, which was released on 29 January 2013 to exceptional reviews. The Financial Times commented “Fialkowska’s crystalline, unsentimentalised treatment of Mozart’s piano writing lends the music a spontaneous fluency that is invigorating.”

Fialkowska’s award follows an all-Chopin lunchtime recital in the Wigmore Hall which was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3’s Lunchtime Concert Series (click the link below to listen again). On Thursday 11th April, Fialkowska performs a programme of Chopin Grieg and Schubert at the Sage, Gateshead in aid of the British Red Cross.

[Source: Nicky Thomas Media Consultancy]

My review of Janina Fialkowska’s recent Wigmore Hall lunchtime concert

Read my Meet the Artist interview with Janina Fialkowska

Janina Fialkowska (picture credit: © Julien Faugère / ATMA)

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?  

My mother was an ambitious ‘failed’ pianist. She got me started at age four and I enjoyed it from the beginning.

Who or what are the most important influences on your playing? 

A few people to be honest; certainly Alfred Cortot to begin with as he was the teacher of not only my mother, but also my teacher in Montreal (Yvonne Hubert…who also taught Louis Lortie and Marc Andre Hamelin!!) and my teacher in Paris, Yvonne Lefebure. I was then associated first as a pupil then as an assistant to the great Russian pedagogue who taught at Juilliard in New York, Sasha Gorodnitzki. His style was light years away from the French school I had been brought up in and from him I was introduced to the rich sound of the old Russian school. The biggest influence, however, was Arthur Rubinstein…He was my idol since I first heard him when I was twelve, and I was fortunate enough to have become his last pupil and close friend during the last 7 years of his wonderful life.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Just keeping my career afloat for the past forty years or so…it doesn’t get any easier.

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble? 

Naturally if there is a conductor, it is always a help if he or she is a pleasant and flexible musician with good accompanying skills and a sensitivity to my own brand of music making. If the conductor is unpleasant but a brilliant musician, this can work, but not always. If he is pleasant and a lousy conductor, this also can work because then I just make alliances with the principals in the orchestra. If the orchestra is young or just not top quality, it can be very exciting especially if the players are enthusiastic…then we are all working very hard towards a common goal and the fun is to see how far we can get. With a great orchestra it is always a pleasure, particularly if I am playing Chopin and I can impress them enough that they also get some enjoyment out of the piece (Chopin concertos have rather sparse orchestral accompaniments and sometimes the orchestra members get bored). What I have always tried to do is to give my utmost, NOT just in the performances but also in rehearsal out of respect to my colleagues sitting around me.

Which recordings are you most proud of? 

Honestly…….I really don’t listen to my recordings once they are made public. I did, however, hear my latest Mozart CD ( K415 and 449 with the Chamber Players of Canada) as someone played it to me in the car driving somewhere. It sounded okay. I like my recording of the Paderewski Concerto and the Polish radio orchestra, but that’s mainly because I love the slow movement of that piece and no one seems to want to program it in concert anywhere so one never hears it which is a shame.

Do you have a favourite concert venue? 

Manitoulan Island, in the province of Ontario, Canada – a magical place, a pleasant little auditorium and the best audience of all.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

I assume you mean musicians that are still living?

There are too many to list but I will try and remember some; I have six Canadian pianist colleagues who I adore (Hamelin, Hewitt, Parker, Chang, Lortie, Laplante) .

Outside of Canada there is Imogen Cooper, Krystian Zimerman and Radu Lupu whom I admire more than you can imagine, and of course Perahia, Barenboim, Zacharias, Ax, Argerich, Sokolov, Jeffrey Swann, and MANY others. Of the younger generation I have been most impressed by the young Germans, Alexander Schimpf and Hinrich Alpers, the Georgian, Tamar Beraia, the Frenchmen Lorenzo Soules and Francois Dumont, the Polish pianist Rafal Blechacz and the Scottish/Dutch pianist Christopher Devine.

What is your most memorable concert experience?  

My comeback recital in Irsee, Germany in 2004. It had been exactly two years to the day in exactly the same venue that I had last performed before succumbing to a cancerous tumour which paralysed my left arm. After a muscle transfer surgery I came back to play in Irsee  and it was quite emotional for me. The hall was filled with friends not only from all over Germany but also from America and the UK.

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to? 

Mozart and Chopin are my favourites to play. Probably I’d enjoy a Lieder recital the most to listen to…….I love Mozart operas and I have a passion for Wagner.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students? 

That the composer comes first always. That one does not become a concert pianist for the money or to become famous but simply because one loves music deeply and one has a special talent to communicate a composers wishes and dreams to the audience. That playing the piano is not a sport but a deeply spiritual, artistic endeavor. That the more knowledge one accumulates and absorbs  about not just piano music but all great music and Art, the better an artist one will become …but only after many years of experience. One cannot hurry these things. The trick is to somehow pay the bills during those long years of study and experience gathering.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

At home working in my garden.

interview date: April 2014

Beloved the world over for her exquisite pianism, Janina Fialkowska has enchanted audiences for over thirty years with her glorious lyrical sound, her sterling musicianship and her profound sense of musical integrity. Blending her vast experience with her refreshingly natural approach “Fialkowska has become an artist of rare distinction as well as retaining all the virtuosity of her youth” (La Presse, Montreal, February 13, 2009)

Celebrated for her interpretations of the classical and romantic repertoire, she is particularly distinguished as one of the great interpreters of the piano works of Chopin and Mozart. She has also won acclaim as a champion of the music of twentieth-century Polish composers, both in concert and on disc.

Read Janina’s full biography here

www.janinafialkowska.com

Alan Fraser teaching

What is your first memory of the piano?

I was learning a piece called ‘Baby Bear’, and I was having difficulty with it. It was about the sixth piece in my grade one book, and I think you actually had to play hands together or something incredibly challenging like that. My mother sat down with me and patiently helped me through it. For some reason that always stuck in my mind – it’s one of the few memories I have of a warm and caring feeling between my mom and I.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

The lack of good piano teachers. I figured there has got to be some way of offering students better than what I received. But it was also just by chance – some neighbourhood kids needed lessons, so I taught them. I was 16 which means I’ve now been teaching over 40 years.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

First off the bat is Richard Hunt, an Englishman who ended up in Montreal and later founded Quartango, one of the best tango groups around. He taught me for only two years when I was 8 and 9 years old, but he instilled a love of music in me that I carry to this day. He was very clever and he let me have fun! We even had some of our lessons on the church organ instead of the piano.

Then there was Phil Cohen who had been Yvonne Hubert’s assistant (she had been a student of Cortot and taught such Canadian greats as Janina Fialkowska, Marc-Andre Hamelin, Ronald Turini who later studied with Horowitz, Andre Laplante and Louis Lortie). Phil was fascinated with the psycho-physical aspects of performance and would do strange things with your hand that made you play way better but you weren’t sure what exactly was going on.

When I finished my studies with Phil I wanted to understand what had just happened to me, so I did a training in Feldenkrais Method, and I count Moshe Feldenkrais as my next most memorable and significant teacher.

I concluded that Phil had given me an amazing degree of refinement, but I had never acquired the firm foundation upon which such sophistication needs rest. So I went to study with Kemal Gekić in Yugoslavia. More or less a product of the Russian School, he rebuilt everything from the ground up and indeed gave my hand a strength and security it had never had before.

Finally, in the past few years I have again been having occasional sessions with Phil – getting some reminders about that sophisticated part and synthesizing what I’ve learned from both Phil and Kemal to develop what I call Craft of Piano Method, the approach presented in my three books on piano technique.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

All of the above. Also Richard Feynman, the physicist and author of ‘Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman – Adventures of a Curious Character’, and Werner Erhard, whose work now goes by the name Landmark Education. Also G. I. Gurdjieff. And various psychological disciplines…… what they gave me is the idea always to make it a positive, creative experience. To respect the person. To try to discover the person. Never to fault the student for not understanding but to fault myself for failing to discover the language that would have him or her understand.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

Hoo boy, there are hundreds of those… Recently I worked with a violinist in Pensacola, Florida, who had shoulder pain. I had him continue his up bow way past the violin, towards the ceiling, then around in a big circle. Then his down bow expanded into a big circle in the other direction. Then I had him play not moving his bow at all but moving his violin back and forth underneath the bow. Finally I explained to him where his arms are attached to his body: do you know? It is only at the central end of the collarbone where it attaches to the sternum. I put my bunched fingertips one on each of these collarbone-sternum joints and palpated them while he played, just kept physically in touch with them. His sound went through the roof. It had been improving steadily but this was a quantum leap, it had power, sonority, richness, expressivity – it gave us all goosebumps.

I recently worked with a young Italian pianist in Geneva. She had been given a steady diet of arm weight technique and told not to move her fingers too much. When I showed her a way of moving her fingers which gave them activity and tonus without stiffening them or causing any stiffness elsewhere, her playing became amazingly poetic. I was blown away because I didn’t have to tell her to be more expressive or poetic, we just worked to undo the physical block which had been preventing her natural expression from finding its voice.

I taught an American pianist in Trossingen, Germany many years ago. Her hand suffered (as so many do) from over-relaxation, and I worked to build up its structure, just to get it to stand nicely on the keyboard even before we tried to play anything. All of a sudden she says, “Gee, I feel so muscular!” We all laughed, because of course, it wasn’t her muscles at all that were giving her the sense of power, it was her skeletal structure.

I remember teaching a Chinese student during my year in Wuhan. She was playing Liszt’s Dante Sonata and couldn’t really get the special atmosphere of the second theme. I tried explaining to her how Liszt was pulled in two directions, towards divine love but also towards carnal love, and that we don’t really know which one this theme represents. I myself feel it as towards the divine, how about you? No result. I try another tack: “Imagine you are the Emperor of China and it is your yearly pilgrimage to the Sun Temple. You must pray to the Gods for rain, and if you fail, your people will die of famine. You enter the temple, you pray with all your heart, and suddenly, a sound of brass from the sky, a divine melody descends from the clouds – you know your prayers have been answered. Play this theme as if it was that heavenly melody.” She played and we were literally in tears. It was indeed heavenly. It was a prayer. I was fascinated because I had to go into her culture to access the universal quality of that theme. Trying to get her to understand Liszt’s culture met with no success, but her own culture proved an admirable path for her to understand that music, music which does indeed speak to us all. She needed her own culture to access the right side of her brain, which of course possesses a perfect understanding of the spiritual element in this theme.

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?

Exciting: their intelligence, their sensitivity, their curiosity, their receptivity, and their willingness to be beginners. Challenging: 1) the slightly rusty nature of their brains, compared to the incredible flexibility and speed of their younger colleagues. 2) having to fix the sometimes vast amounts of garbage they have been taught over the years…

What do you expect from your students?

Curiosity, engagement, dedication….

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

They are excellent, a stimulus to high level work. Competitions are the equivalent of a scientific congress where people go to meet their colleagues, share ideas and be stimulated. It’s a chance to feel like you are part of a community instead of this weirdo who mostly sits between four walls practicing on his or her own. Whenever I prepared a competition I played better, because I knew I had to. Perhaps theoretically I should play my best simply out of love for the composer, but I find the practical stimulus of a concrete goal a much more effective kick in the pants.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

Beginning:

  • Sing a simple song, sense your own voice. Let your fingers begin to find that song on the piano. Experience your fingers on the piano as an extension of your voice.
  • Tap simple rhythms, one hand on your knee, the other on a piano key. Let rhythmic sense be as important as the sense of the notes from the very beginning.
  • Play first, read second.
  • Never let the task of reading distract you from the task of making music.

Advanced:

  • Never let relaxation lead you into a state of emasculated collapse.
  • “Don’t bang” does not mean “play like a wimp,” it means “find a way to play where you stand up into your hand’s structure instead of letting it collapse. Banging mostly comes from weakness not too much strength.
  • Have your hands learn to stand, walk, run and jump well on the keyboard, then give them musical tasks that give them a reason for doing these things.
  • Never let technique distract you from the sound you are making, the music you are making. They are intimately connected.
  • Understand your hand’s structure and function, then find out where it is not working optimally for you. Find out how the body participates in supporting the hand in working well.

What are you thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?

They feed each other. I couldn’t really do one well without the other.

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?

Passed on: Horowitz, Rubinstein, Rachmaninoff, Ignaz Friedman, de Pachamann. They all had supreme virtuosity, compared to which most of the best pianists today only move their fingers well. This virtuosity is way beyond digital dexterity – it’s creating orchestral sonorities and emotional characterizations that grow naturally and organically out of the soundscapes the composers created.

Living: Kemal Gekić. He is the one pianist today who is breaking new ground in this realm. He is using his transcendent mastery of the keyboard to explore new emotional and spiritual elements in the music he plays, and dealing with adjustments to the sonority at the micro- or even nano- level to evoke unbelievably huge changes in the expressive dimension.

Canadian pianist Alan Fraser is best known as the author of three major volumes on piano technique: The Craft of Piano Playing (also in DVD), Honing the Pianistic Self-Image, and All Thumbs: Well-Coordinated Piano Technique. Fraser’s new approach grows out of his many decades’ study with Phil Cohen and Kemal Gekić, synthesizing the best features of previous schools of piano technique in order to move beyond them. Analyzing piano technique in the light of the Feldenkrais Method of neuromotor reeducation (Fraser is a senior Feldenkrais practitioner) allows Fraser to unlock the hand’s innate potency at the keyboard by returning to its inherent structure and function. Instead of distracting from musical aspects of piano playing, Fraser’s focus on the physical brings the pianist, by improving his physical relationship to his instrument, back into contact with his essential artistic self. Thus Fraser’s students gain not only in technical mastery; but in their artistic expression which develops a whole new dimension of tonal breadth, emotional subtlety and spirituality.

In 2011 Fraser inaugurated the Alan Fraser Piano Institute, a week-long intensive course designed to create a breakthrough in one’s piano technique. Branches of the Institute have already sprung up at Smith College, Massachusetts; Salt Lake City, Utah; Concord New Hampshire; Stuttgart, Germany; Geneva, Switzerland; Nice, France; and Haarlem, the Netherlands. In addition to his Institutes, Alan Fraser gives recitals and master classes throughout Europe and North America, and continues to teach at the University of Novi Sad, Serbia. He has composed several vocal works including two masses and a Magnificat, and is a respected digital sound engineer who edited Kemal Gekić’s monumental recording of the 27 Chopin Etudes.