La Scena Musicale

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Fialkowska takes Chopin back in time with Tafelmusik

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

Chopin is just about everywhere as we celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth this year. Perhaps the last place you’d expect to hear his compositions though is with a Baroque ensemble. However, never has Chopin been as present on stage as he was at the Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre on Oct. 7, when the Tafelmusik Orchestra performed his E-minor piano concerto with Janina Fialkowska on an 1848 Pleyel piano.

The concept of Chopin on Period Piano is a simple and ingenious one for Tafelmusik. Fialkowska would play on the same piano model Chopin played on during his last concert at the Salle Pleyel in Paris in 1848. The program would pair the first concerto with the Grand Nonet in F major by Louis Spohr (1784-1859), because Chopin had played the concerto in 1838 on the same program as the Nonet, a bouncy four-movement piece a bit off-the-wall but performed by nine Tafelmusik members with staunch enthusiasm and energy.

In a new arrangement for chamber ensemble (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and string quintet) by Dutch composer Sylvia Maessen, Fialkowska and the Tafelmusik players gave a delicate and intimate performance of Chopin’s E-minor concerto, typically performed with gusto and big romantic reverberation. The Pleyel piano, restored by the Quebec City-based husband-and-wife team of Marcel Lapointe and Isabelle Gagnon, didn’t produce such fireworks, but had dynamic, supple sounds that finely matched Tafelmusik’s exquisite period instruments and roamed comfortably inside the Trinity-St. Paul’s.

It’s like opening an aged bottle of wine that is ripe and smooth in taste. It’s as if you’ve turned a coloured photo into sepia in Photoshop and the same image now looks warmer and more enhanced and you can picture the lives and stories of the people in it. That was the case here. The concerto was played without a conductor and in true chamber music style with musicians seated around the piano, nodding heads to each other to bring out a subtle nuance and voicing. If you just closed your eyes for a second, you could almost picture Chopin at the piano and George Sand sitting somewhere in the audience.

The performance wasn’t about the soloist, as it normally would be in a Chopin concerto. That being said, Fialkowska was a standout from the moment she stepped on stage with her majestic black tailcoat. The E-minor concerto under her hands and on the Pleyel piano — Chopin’s instrument of choice — was light, crisp, and full of life. Perhaps it’s the half-Polish blood in her, Fialkowska has a nature flamboyance in this music without even having to try hard. The Pleyel has smaller keys in width and a shallower dip than a modern piano, but none of the differences seemed to present challenges for Fialkowska, who was performing Chopin on a period instrument for the first time.

For the encore, Fialkowska gave a swift interpretation of Chopin’s Waltz Op. 64, No. 2 in C-sharp minor. At one point, a motorcycle revved outside and sirens screamed, but time stood still inside.

It was truly beautiful, wonderful, and magical, definitely the Chopin birthday party to beat.

Chopin on Period Piano repeats Oct. 8, 9 and 10.

From Oct. 9 until March 27, 2011, you can also watch the exhibition Fryderyk Chopin & the Romantic Piano at the Royal Ontario Museum.

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