By Barbara Rowes
September 01, 1980 12:00 PM

Mozart was my first love,” sighs concert pianist Janina Fialkowska, 29. “But then I suddenly loved Grieg.” After that came a brief fling with Brahms and Chopin. But, Janina adds coyly, “I’ve never gotten over Wagner.” The Canadian-born Fialkowska may have a thing for 18th-and 19th-century composers. But the man who has most affected her life is 20th-century piano great Arthur Rubinstein. Five years ago the maestro, then 88, asked young Janina to play for him, and after a grueling six-day keyboard obstacle course, Rubinstein finally bestowed his seal of approval—a grand bouquet.

Since then he’s done more than send flowers. Her virtuosity and his clout together have led her on a globe-trotting recital schedule with the world’s finest orchestras. This past season she played in 35 cities in four countries, and now she’s gearing up for a 30-city fall tour that will take her through South America and England and from Florida to Alaska in the U.S.

Though Janina may not be Rubinstein’s only protégée, she beams, “He’s never gone overboard with others like he has with me.” She recalls vividly how it all started. In January 1975 Fialkowska was summoned by Rubinstein to a series of auditions at Manhattan’s Drake Hotel. “I was the dessert after his elegant lunches,” she smiles. He would puff on a cigar and request “sonatas and études I hadn’t touched in years.” Janina would then rush home and practice through the night for the next day’s recital. Mornings, her stomach knotted and her palms turned clammy. The pace was exhausting, and the exacting master showed no mercy as he tested her range, touch and determination. After six days her prowess and endurance were proved, and Rubinstein became her mentor. Lest anyone leer, Janina insists that Rubinstein, an avowed womanizer, has never made non-musical overtures to her. But he helped swing a record deal with RCA’s high-toned Red Seal classical series and then helped set up her first series of concerts through his management. “For me,” he said after one of her performances, “Janina was a revelation. I have never heard any pianist play the great Liszt sonata with the power, temperament, understanding, beauty of tone and, above all, the emotion and complete technical command she has shown.”

In 1977 she released a delicate effusion of Liszt works, Presenting Janina Fialkowska, and her second record, Janina Fialkowska Plays Chopin, is soon due for release in the U.S. Sascha Gorodnitzky has taught Janina since 1969 at Juilliard and calls her “a genuine superstar, but you’d never know it. She arrives for lessons in jeans. She has a purity and honesty of approach and a country aura that distinguishes her style.”

Indeed, Fialkowska grew up in rural Senneville, Quebec, where her family has owned a 40-acre apple orchard for five generations. The family of actor Christopher Plummer, distant cousins, live next door. Tutored by her mother, Bridget, who had been a concert pianist before World War II, Janina debuted with the Montreal Symphony at 10. Five hours of daily piano practice forced her “to give up a social life,” but she finished her master’s degree in music at the University of Montreal by the age of 17 and went on to study in Paris with Yvonne Lefebvre of the Paris Conservatory. At 18 she began a seven-year siege at Juilliard, living mostly at Manhattan’s prissy Barbizon Hotel for Women for $45 a week. “My parents wanted me in a safe place,” she groans, “and they got it.”

Despite her passion for piano, the prospects of the highly competitive concert circuit or the tedium of a teaching career disheartened Fialkowska and she prepared to return to Canada to study law. But first she reluctantly agreed to represent Canada in the first Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Tel Aviv in late 1974. She lost first place to Emmanuel Ax, but she won the real prize—the attention and active backing of Rubinstein.

When not on tour, Janina lives in an artists’ residence near Lincoln Center. Her one-bedroom apartment was until recently furnished with thrift shop items. But with part of last year’s $30,000 earnings she has spruced up the pad and acquired a $10,000 Steinway.

Her daily breather from five hours of rehearsal is an hour at a gym. Her close pals include competition rival Ax, boyfriend Jeffrey Swann (also a busy touring pianist) and the Christopher Plummers, to whose Connecticut farmhouse she retreats “as often as possible. He’s a Horowitz devotee and I’m in Rubinstein’s camp, so there’s always something to argue about. Nothing,” she notes, “is ever resolved.” Except, perhaps, that Fialkowska is playing her way out of Rubinstein’s awesome shadow. “We only took the first step together,” she says. “Now I’m making it on my own.”