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Inna Faliks: The Art of the Sublime

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Inna Faliks: The Art of The Sublime
Inna Faliks is the very quintessence of 'poetry and power'

In common parlance, the word “sublime” is an adjective meaning awe-inspiringly grand, excellent or impressive,” like the best chocolate fudge sundae you have ever had.

Perhaps, more relevant to the task at hand you might use the word to describe a spine-tingly piece of music as “a work of sublime beauty.” Replace that indefinite article with the definite article – in other words with the, the word also functions as a noun, meaning something that strikes the mind with grandeur and power.”

And thus, we arrive at the truth about the artistry of Inna Faliks. For never need a connoisseur look beyond the striking artistry of Ms Faliks to find works of great, Grecian lyricism, and spine-tingling, utterly sublime beauty.

There is no other single word, indeed no other way to approach her writing: her extraordinarily lyrical writing, both of her autobiography and the works of music that have sprung from it. There is extraordinarily eloquent poetry and intellectual value in both.

And so, we must aver that Ms any writing that Falik’s does embodies the very quintessence of nobility of character; high art, elevated in nature and style.

Ms Faliks is a musician first – a bona fide musical genius from an incredibly early age, perhaps even before even touched the keys of a piano. Like other geniuses – György Cziffra, Martha Argerich, Jimi Hendrix and so on – music must have formed in her head before she even uttered a sound and played the piano.

The cover of Inna Faliks’ brilliant autobiography

However, before she wrote her autobiography Weight in the FingertipsA Musical Odyssey from Soviet Ukraine to the World Stage [Regardez… déjà une référence à la plus grande épopée de tous les temps: L’Odyssée d’Homè] Inna Faliks was a prodigious composer and pianist.

But remarkably there can also be little doubt that Ms Faliks lyrical prose also springs from the brilliantly exacting poetics that govern her exceptional musicianship – and, of course, her pianism – from whence her artistry streaked across the sky as “a dark-skinned and black haired… Ashkenazi Jew from Odessa.”

In fact, as a particularly vivacious child. She describes overhearing her mother, Irene Faliks the first profound influence [also a four-year-old Ms Faliks’ first piano teacher] in her life, say to her father: “I hope that the children she meets are lively, interesting, with hobbies. I would hate for her to have to spend time with children who are… gray.”

She certainly stuck out in the playground among “[the] blond-haired and blue-eyed [children who] spat out the word Evreika [“Jew girl] at me,” she remembers, continuing “I didn’t know what that meant as I had never even heard the word Jewish yet,” she writes early in her autobiography.

This was not unusual. After all this was the era of the Soviet Union and Ukrainian was occupied. Religion was not encouraged, much less recognised. Places of worship – synagogues and churches – though not non-existent, being a holdover from Tsarist Russia, but they were dusty and desolate.

But the little Miss Faliks was treated to recitation of the poetry of Alexander Pushkin by her father Simon Faliks, especially on tram-trips to the National Music School, which had accepted the young prodigy into their program for gifted children.

The first days and weeks were inauspicious, reports Miss Faliks. She thought she would be playing the piano. Instead, she was given a pair of ornamental spoons and [presumably] asked to learn to keep time – and to make music on them instead of making music on the instrument she had watched her mother play exquisitely.

“I was flabbergasted. I was a soloist!” Such an affront writes make up my own pieces. I just needed to figure out how to play the piano! I was ready to perform on my own, all the music I had heard my mom practice – Mozart, Bach, Scriabin – and to make up my own pieces. I just needed to figure out how to play the piano! But they didn’t understand, and so for my first public appearance, I sang in the chorus and played the spoons.”

No longer taken for granted, Ms Faliks is a concert pianist of uncommon beauty

The lucid poetry of Miss Faliks’ writing shows up early in her prosody as she examines the basis of the poetic of her music – then as now. She asks herself: “What is more important for a child to learn first: sound or rhythm?”

Answering her rhetorical question with the analogy of a fistfight, she asserts: “The truth is they both hold the key to making music. Rhythm is primordial and ever present: the beating of our heart, our breath, our steps.” [the art of subtle dynamics already forming in the mind!] “I wanted to be able to touch the piano and make it sing about all the colorful landscapes and characters that traversed my mind,” she writes as if harking back to a wistful dream.

Miss Faliks puts all of her early trials behind her and soon begins to put her theories and her poetics in music to the test through the sheer audacity of her belief in herself, thanks in no small part to parents – and extended family – whose unstinting support propel her forward and upward.

The journey from “dark-skinned, dark-haired Jewish girl” internationally renowned soloist comes by way of an exquisite book equal parts gripping narrative and poetic writing that sings like proverbial Goethe lieder. The analogy should never be lost on the reader as Mis Faliks’ life.

In fact, hers is a life that unfolds – both wittingly and unwittingly – like a character caught up in the drama Faust the epic dramatic work by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – or, more appropriately, a character [most obvious?] from an epic novel modeled on Goethe’s classic verse play. This is The Master and Margarita, a seminal [equally epic work] by the celebrated Ukrainian writer Mikhail Bulgakov.

The book was a constant companion of Miss Faliks throughout her life in Odessa and it is among the most prized possessions that makes its way with her to the USA, when her parents via Vienna and Rome. Here she experienced the life of a refugee. Her extraordinarily educated – who had spent a lifetime in academia – become the equivalent of all but panhandlers to supplement the handouts to refugee’s by Jewish organisations while they await papers that will allow them to emigrate to the USA.

It is a kind of Milan Kundera-meets-Mikhail Bulgakov existence for the Faliks.’ The idiomatic narrative of The Master and Margarita is further seared in the memory of the young Miss Faliks. The spy-story-like departure from Odessa gives way to a breathtaking Graham Greene-like narrative. Ms Faliks tells a compelling dramatic story throughout from Odessa to Chicago, her ultimate destination.

The bitter sweet loss of her best friend from music school, Misha Shpigelmacher [a.k.a., Shpilka] drives the pianist deeper into her music. [Spoiler alert: Shpilka and Ms Faliks are reunited almost years later and are now married for two decades, and parents to two children.] She also becomes an outrageous extrovert, led [astray] into her first [short-lived] marriage to her rich narcissistic husband, who mistreats her rather cruelly. However, miraculously throughout her ordeals she clear-eyed about her artistic objectives to penetrate the skin of music and discover the secrets which she will then turn to performances and recordings that make her one of the finest composers and pianists in the world.

Along the way she meets extraordinary teachers that she develops almost mystical relationships. Apart from such celebrated conservatories in Chicago she meets – à la G.I Gurdjieff – remarkable men and women. These were Ann Schein whose atelier she leaves to study with Leon Fleischer, and Billy Childs, another masterful tutor. Her growth at the Peabody was significant to her development. But clearly, by her own admission, other teachers had the most definitive impact on her development.

She tells us, in dramatic fashion, how two of them helped her shape her artistic sensibility. First among them was the late Emilio del Rosario – [a.k.a., Mr D], who was probably the most impactful tutor in her life. The fine tuning came by way of her discipleship with the Russian expatriate Boris Petrushansky, who studied in Moscow with Heinrich Neuhaus, the teacher to such maestros as Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels and Lev Naumov, among others.

The intensity in the eyes is a mirrfor of the soul of the pianist

As a pianist, composer, interpreter of the classics and as a pedagogue, Miss Faliks is non pareil. Her broad range of musicological interests certainly enables her to become a more complete musician than most of her peers. Immersing herself in study and performance despite everything that life throws at her makes for a narrative as dazzling as her recorded repertoire. Remarkably the autobiography does not include an appendix with her discography. Each of the productions is recommended listening for the discerning connoisseur. So, online resources must suffice.

Whenever the autobiography threatens to become a litany of which works of music were played when and where, Miss Faliks diverts us with masterly use of poetic writing and tremendously beauteous imagism. This book abounds in such masterful writing, so this perhaps rather long one might suffice to exemplify the fact that the pianist is also a magnificent, poetic writer:

“I first encountered Scarbo much earlier when Mr D assigned it to me. Mom seemed terrified: ‘Should Inna really play this? It’s the hardest thing written for the piano!’ I looked at the shiny, new Dover edition of the score. Lots of busy pedal markings and repeated notes, a gazillion sharps and flats, and wild dynamics, from whole pages of ppp [pianississimo: really, really soft] to fff [fortississimo: really, really loud]. Some pages looked like black-and-white abstract paintings because of the sheer volume of notes. It would take for her to learn, but I loved the challenge… ‘She can do it’ Mr D said. ‘Let me write in some fingerings.’…

Scarbo, along with Ondine and Le Gibet, is one-third of Ravel’s 1908 triptych Gaspard de la Nuit – one of the great impressionist masterpieces of music and one of the most notoriously unplayable piano suites ever written. Each of the three pieces depicts a nightmarish, ghoulish character. Scarbo is an imp who hides under your bed; frightens you at night; and, like a candle, is extinguished before morning.

“The piece opens with an ominous repeated not, played quickly. Some pianists choose to play it with one finger – I change between thumb and second finger, alternating at breakneck speed, like a trill on one note. The effect is an eerie, otherworldly vibrato. The piece can be played like the insane bravura storm that it is, but I think it’s crucial to think of Scarbo as an actual character, with thoughts and feelings. Who is he? Is he evil? Is he lonely? Is he, perhaps, sad?

Rehearsing feverishly, ready to dazzle a rapt audience

Scarbo’s motif is one of the saddest melodies Ravel ever wrote. Paying attention to this might reveal that Scarbo is despised, misunderstood, and lonely. Approaching the work with sympathy for him makes for a quite different performance than just playing the notes cleanly and quickly, with wrath and virtuosity. The momentum of the piece, with its jazzy harmonies, macabre dances, and Spanish rhythmic underpinnings [Ravel was part Basque], culminates in two massive climaxes, gigantic chords crashing and obliterating all that came before. From echoing remains of these chords, the repeated note quivers begin again until it is snuffed out.” [Interlude, page 110, Maurice Ravel, Billy Childs]

It is one’s considered observation that no one – not even Martha Argerich, whose Gaspard de la Nuit is among the greatest ever interpretations of the work – could describe the work in this manner and then play it or play it and then describe as she played it. But as one can see Miss Faliks does, and she does so on numerous occasions throughout the book. Even the mundane can be poetic with her pen”

“The next morning, as the sun shone as if it had never gone to bed – just like us. A rickety little bus jauntily bobbed up and down the hills, taking us to the Rakvere outdoor festival. At every bump in the road, we doubled over with nausea.” [Chapter 7, page 130, Rapsody in Blue, Russian Style]

Miss Faliks always hit her stride and would be at the top of her game once she sat at the piano and began to play, even during whirlwind tours and this book provides plenty of anecdotal evidence. There can be little doubt that this is true. For anyone who has been to her recitals will testify to this. Her performances – and indeed her recordings – leaves us in no doubt about her musical charisma.

What this book does is create a sense that her artistry has prismatic dimensions. She spent enough time in Soviet-occupied Ukraine, studying in a system that encouraged high literacy, and when one such as Miss Faliks displayed an extraordinary gift for music she was able to be admitted into a school for children who displayed Mensa qualities. Having a foundational education in the Russian system os music also helped pre-mold her genius.

She is more than merely literate – she comes across as being a sort of amplified litterateur as well. Her deep immersion in Ukrainian and Russian poetry at an early age [encouraged by her father] clearly enabled her to plunge into Mr Bulgakov’s epic work with great discernment. Reading Weight in the Fingertips one might often get the impression that she has emerged from the novel with elements his characters, something that is brought to fruition in the recording Manuscripts Don’t Burn [see review below], released around the same time as her autobiography.

Both the book – laced with seductive, poetic imagery – and the recording show Ms Faliks to be a sublime artist whose time has come. Seldom [if at all] does one come across an artist today as gifted in the art of poetry, prose and music. Indeed, she seems to be made completely of poetry and music. She is, in a manner of speaking, the very quintessence of art, who seems to embody the inspirational words attributed to the great German composer Ludwig van Beethoven, who said:

“Don’t just practice your art but force your way into its secrets. For it and knowledge can raise men to The Divine.” In response to which we must add, with audacity appropriate to whom we speak: “Mien leib Herr Ludwig van Beethoven, mögen Sie auch überzeugt sein, dass das Klavierspiel von Fraulien Faliks sie in die Göttlichkeit erhoben hat!”

The CD cover for Manuscripts Don’t Burn [Photo by Rosalind Wan Wong]

Inna Faliks: Manuscripts Don’t Burn Seldom does a recitation and solo piano programme such as this hang together so perfectly, each successive work tightening the ratchet of intensity – from the opening Master and Margarita Suite for Speaking Pianist – towards the final, somewhat despairing and pertinently contemporary anguish of Hero. It helps that once again Inna Faliks is at the top of her communicative powers. The California-based Miss Faliks makes light work of the allegorical tome, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. With deft virtuosity that comes from being a skilled and highly lyrical writer herself, she is up to the task of working through the technical challenges of Mr Bulgakov’s book. Her recitation, beautifully articulated, soft, charming little lisp included.

Thus, in the opening Suite she produces a tight and sweet unity of purpose between words and music, providing just enough pianistic support when her spoken words are to the fore. Together, of course – piano and voice bring Miss Faliks’ full emotional range to the disc’s largest work. Cast in seven accessible movements, based on baroque dances, the work’s energetic outer movements neatly enfold inner, slower movements of scintillating warmth and beauty. The middle movements – Yellow Flower Waltz and Fantasia – are by turns rapturously lyrical, sparkling and luscious.

The title work – Manuscripts Don’t Burn – is based on the recurring [phrase in Mr Bulgakov’s work. Miss Faliks is at her finest as she deftly navigates the craggy, windswept heights and depths of the story. Here, Miss Faliks’ ability to suggest the mighty integrity of Mr Bulgakov’s prose architecture from multiple points of view within the musical narrative is particularly impressive in every way.

Also highly impressive is Miss Faliks’ reading of Liszt’s arrangements of the three Schubert pieces on the disc. Gretchen am Spinnade, Erlkonig and Am Meer. The former is daringly spacious, while Erlkonig is noble while the latter work is awash with delicate colours, graceful and eternally flowing.

Both her autobiography and this recoding come at a time when the threat of illegal occupation of Ukraine by Russia looms large. Of the four contemporary works on this disc, Mike Garson’s A Psalm for Odesa is heartbreakingly elegiac. Voices – with its entwined historical recordings seamlessly folded into it – is played with crystalline polyphonic clarity, its folk-like digressions all the more delightful for their naturalness.

The two other works [apart from suggesting that their composer, Clarice Assad, seems to be everywhere these days] take Miss Faliks’ pianism into sublimely cosmic regions in which the four movements of the Japanese-influenced Godai blossom and bloom because of the deftly woven textures that constantly engage the imagination. While the final work Hero is luminously performed.

There are two works – Notturno in G minor, H337 by Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn and Black Earth by the ingenious Fazil Say – are not on the disc. Miss Faliks has interiorised both with great skill and pays the first with uncommon lyricism, while in the latter the pianist captures its musical truths with great crepuscular beauty. Happily, both works are available as digital downloads.

The importance of Inna Faliks’ autobiography and this accompanying disc cannot be recommended too highly. Both will no doubt propel this extraordinary artist into the rarefied realm.

Deo gratis…

Music – 1 – 7. Master and Margarita – Suite for Speaking Pianist *One: Time to Go – a Sarabande, Two: 14th of the Month of Nisan, Three: Night Streets of Moscow – a Polonaise, Four: Yellow Flower Waltz, Five: Fantasia, “Have you stopped loving me?” Six: Behemoth’s Somersaults into Cognac – a Bagatelle, Seven: Listen to the Silence – Epilogue; 8. Gretchen am Spinnrade S. 558/8; 9. Manuscripts Don’t Burn, for speaking pianist *; 10. Erlkonig [Erlking] S. 558/4; 11. Am Meer [By the sea] S. 560/4; 12. “A Psalm for Odessa” * 13 – 15. “Voices” Suite in Three Movements for piano and historical recordings* One: Sirota, Two: Alter[ed] Zhok, Three: Fredele; 19. 16 – 19: Godai, the Five Elements, for speaking pianist * One: Dry Bones – Wind, Two: Absence – Fire and Water, Three: Earth, Four: Ascension Sky; 20. Hero for piano solo [2013] *.

Musicians – Inna Faliks: p.

*World Premiere

Released – 2024
Label – SONO Luminus [DSL – 92279]
[sonoluminus.com]
Runtime – 1:12:41

Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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