A Pianist Transcribes Her Polytonal Life As Mesmerizing Memoir

Janina Fialkowska (© Julien Faugère / ATMA)

A Note in Time. Janina Fialkowska. 372 pages. Novum Publishing, 2021.

BOOK REVIEW — Most touring performers lead interesting lives. Not all are endowed with the perception and authorial wherewithal to transform their lives into engaging prose. The widely traveled Montreal-born pianist Janina Fialkowska applies these virtues to A Note in Time, a memoir that will appeal not only to music lovers and industry insiders but also to anyone who responds to a story well told.

The book begins not at the beginning but at what might well have been the beginning of the end — a biopsy and diagnosis in January 2002 at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. In Fialkowska’s case, the disease was not of a common variety but an unusual growth in the left arm that would require surgical removal after a good deal of radiation.

“Would I ever play the piano again?” she asks at the end of a chapter, briskly describing the eventful prior year, which included preparing more than a dozen concertos and two recital programs, bedside visits to her dying mother, marriage to the German festival manager Harry Oesterle, a recording of Liszt’s formidable Transcendental Etudes, and, inevitably, the attacks of Sept. 11, reports of which she watched from her home in Connecticut, having visited New York City the day before.

Chapters 2 through 14 proceed more or less chronologically. Fialkowska’s first piano teacher was her mother, a Canadian descended from “a typical mixture of Scottish and English adventurers” (plus Cree) who married a Polish engineer. Under the guidance of this strong-willed woman, Fialkowska moved quickly and bilingually through private schools and the Université de Montréal, as well as the École Vincent-D’Indy, where she had lessons with Yvonne Hubert, the Belgian-born perfectionist behind the careers of so many accomplished Quebec pianists.

Then came a year in Paris with Yvonne Lefébure, who, like Hubert, was a student of Alfred Cortot and a stickler for clarity. This “French” style conflicted, perhaps productively, with the melodious warmth preferred by her teacher at Juilliard, Sascha Gorodnitzki. The portrayals of the eccentric Frenchwoman and the dour Russian are vivid, as indeed are all the character sketches, whether of the humble factotums who arrange transportation for international tours or name-brand fellow musicians.

Oddly for a pianist, Fialkowska acquired a lifelong enthusiasm for Wagner in New York by attending opera-in-concert performances by the visiting Chicago Symphony under Georg Solti. Progress at Juilliard was steady, but then came the discouragement of unsuccessful outings in the Warsaw and Leeds competitions. Feeling the prophet without honor in Canada — a Polish name, in her view, did not help — she applied for law school. Happily, the opportunity to enter the inaugural Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Israel in 1974 reconfirmed her true calling. 

A third-place finish in this scrimmage (and a reportedly outstanding Liszt Sonata in B minor led also to a close association with the octogenarian namesake of the competition. Rubinstein all but adopted the young Canadian, lavishing her with career advice, moral support, colorful stories, and a lighthearted love of life that did much to alleviate the stage fright (if this stock phrase does justice to a snarling complex of emotional and physical challenges) that had made performing an exhausting as well as rewarding enterprise. Rubinstein also took an aggressive interest in promoting Fialkowska’s professional activities. An international career materialized suddenly from the ether.

Janina Fialkowska sharing a keyboard with her cousin, the actor Christopher Plummer.

The strong center of the book deals with what might be called the Rubinstein years, when Fialkowska paid her mentor extended visits in New York, Paris, Geneva, and the Spanish resort town of Marbella. As she puts it, “Arthur was at the end of his career and searching for someone to inherit some of his accumulated wisdom, and I was wide open to receive his advice and suggestions.” Thus the outgoing bon vivant (his good humor intact, despite failing eyesight) and the hardworking introvert formed an indelible bond.

Not everything was copacetic in the household, as Mrs. Rubinstein would start horrible rows with her husband and interact with Fialkowska in alternating fits of affection and hostility. When Rubinstein finally made a break for it, a London tabloid assumed that Fialkowska (rather than the pianist’s real paramour, his British concert manager Annabelle Whitestone) was at the center of the scandal.

Whatever the difficulties created by domestic circumstances that were “straight out of an Ibsen play,” the connection with Rubinstein ushered Fialkowska into a world of A-listers. Deborah Kerr, Princess Grace of Monaco, and John Gielgud are among the non-musical luminaries who pop up unexpectedly in these well-packed pages. Musicians, of course, are legion, and they are deftly portrayed. And meals: Like Rubinstein in his own memoirs, Fialkowska never forgot an after-concert feed. The book abounds in gastronomic detail. 

Environments are many and varied. Along with romantic evocations of Venice (where Fialkowska stayed in a room once occupied by Lord Byron) come realistic accounts of grim hotels in Communist Poland and encounters with barely playable pianos. In the Mexican city of Guanajuato, she was forced to deliver Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto, of all works, outdoors, with a malfunctioning sustaining pedal. A picturesque extreme, perhaps, but also representative of the “radical compromise” that concerto performances often entail and the consequent feeling of isolation that can paradoxically result from ensemble performance. Of course, this loneliness is even more pronounced in a recital. Fialkowska contends that the concert pianist, of all musicians, has the heaviest practice regime and the most pressure to deal with. 

She is candid about the toll, mental and physical, these forces took. Nausea was common before performances, as well as fear of memory loss, if few actual lapses. Matters reached an alarming climax at the start of 1978, when anxiety attacks and feelings of unworthiness led to virtual paralysis and, horrifyingly, an attempt to step in front of a bus in New York (an old friend pulled her back). Fialkowska credits her recovery to a Montreal psychiatrist and “an assortment of tranquilizers and antidepressants,” although an upbeat visit to Rubinstein and Whitestone in Lucerne also seems to have helped.

Janina Fialkowska with her mentor, pianist Arthur Rubinstein, in Marbella in July 1977.

Not all her adventures are international. By establishing the Piano Six program of recitals in small Canadian towns, Fialkowska earned an Order of Canada and Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement while reviving her appreciation of the “wildness and richness of our land” and the earthy honesty of its people — Indigenous communities definitely included. 

There is room, of course, for her cousin and neighbor in Connecticut, the actor Christopher Plummer. Not all the dramatis personae are luminaries. There is a touching portrait of Dana, her free-thinking best friend, who died much too young.

An index might have been helpful but would also have added substantially to the book’s 372 pages. There are some irregularities in editing (the Novum publishing house is aimed at “new authors”), but the writing is vivid and accomplished. A sentence of Dickensian length on page 71 recounts the sights and sounds of Paris with a harmonious confidence that leaves no doubt that the author is a person of culture and learning — and a musician.

There are, naturally, discussions of musical matters, including the ancient questions of whether a recording can stand in fully for a live performance (no) and whether poetry and music can be fruitfully compared (yes). Piano fans will smile at Fialkowska’s observation that, while Grieg’s Piano Concerto requires minimum effort to create maximum effect, Schumann’s hazardous exercise in the form reverses this dynamic. A little more detail along these lines would not have been amiss.

As for the question posed at the end of Chapter 1: We knew the answer to be yes, Fialkowska would play again, thanks to the virtually unprecedented transplant of a little-used back muscle to her arm. It says something about her resolve that while the tissues healed, she learned to play left-hand concertos, including those of Ravel and Prokofiev, with her right hand. 

The narrative concludes with Fialkowska’s two-handed comeback in 2004. The ending is made doubly happy by a fine match with her husband, with whom she now lives in Bavaria. (To judge by the book, her first half-century was untroubled by any romantic entanglement.) While it might be unreasonable, so soon after A Note in Time, to hope for a second volume, there is no doubt that a follow-up would be welcome.