l-r: Pianists Rudolf Firkušný, Nikita Magaloff and Arthur Rubinstein in 1960. (source: Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO); credit: Joop van Bilsen; permissions: < a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/nl/deed.en" target="_blank">Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Netherlands.)

Remembering Rudolf Firkušný

Giorgio Koukl | 25 OCT 2019

Thus year marks the 25th anniversary of the death of renowned Czech-American pianist Rudolf Firkušný. Born in 1912 in the Moravian town Napajedla, Firkušný began his musical studies with composers Leoš Janáček and Josef Suk, and pianist Vilém Kurz. He later became a student of Alfred Cortot and Artur Schnabel.

Firkušný’s career as pianist began in the 1920s. He made his New York debut in 1938. The following year, he escaped the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, fleeing first to Paris, then to New York where he settled, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen.

His broad repertoire included the music of mainline classical composers, but Firkušný became best known for championing the music of Czech composers: Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček, and especially Bohuslav Martinů, who composed a number of works for him.

EarRelevant recently asked Czech-Swiss pianist and composer Giorgio Koukl to write about some of his personal memories of Firkušný, who befriended the young Koukl some 20 years before his death in 1994 at the age of 82. Here is what Mr. Koukl had to say.

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In 1974 the Lucerne Music Festival invited Rudolf Firkušný to play a recital and to give a 20 day master class. I had been alerted to this occasion by a good friend, composer Dalibor Vačkář, then living in Lugano. This outstanding personality helped me with my first works during my composition courses in Milan conservatory and inquired for me with the other well known emigre musician from Czechoslovakia, conductor Rafael Kubelìk. Thanks to him, the Kubelìk Foundation granted me a small amount of money and made it possible to audition for acceptance into Firkušný’s master class.

Rudolf Firkušný

Rudolf Firkušný

I remember very well the austere room in the villa where Lucerne’s conservatory resides and a handsome, extremely well dressed gentleman Rudolf Firkušný waiting for the next candidate to be auditioned. He was very polite, but immediately, in reading my written repertoire, asked me to play the difficult Piano Sonata of Igor Stravinsky.

I recall he interrupted me in the middle of the last movement: “Well, George, that’s enough.”

My heart sank. Was this the end?

With a ironic glimpse he added: “See you tomorrow at nine.”

I was in!

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During the next days came a hard period of listening to other fellow pianists and trying to find a free piano for practice as my own lessons unfolded. Firkušný worked with maximum concentration, always polite, but maintaining a certain distance to students. His remarks were very technical, precise and he gave immediate correction.

After a while this way of work showed some very good results, but also a lot of stress with students running out of the room to cry in the corridor, where they were calmed down by a young lady. We learned later on she was the freshly married Mrs. Firkušný.

Rudolf Firkušný and Giorgio Koukl in 1974.

Rudolf Firkušný and Giorgio Koukl in 1974.

During the second week two things happened:

Firkušný gave his brilliant recital in the Lucerne concert hall. Thanks to his kind intervention, we students were invited to attend for free, otherwise an entrance would have been impossible for simple financial reasons, with tickets costing a fortune. Logically the places reserved for us were the most distant ones in the big hall, but even so it was a great lesson to listen to his legendary light technique, a special touch where nothing seemed difficult and a “bow construction” on which he insisted so much (“No phrase is flat, it’s always a bow”). Needless to say the recital was a great success.

The second event took place a few days after. I was invited by the Firkušný to dinner. Speaking in Czech language we rapidly gained intimacy quite different from the master class distance. He was a brilliant, joyful and smart companion, giving much weight to good food and even asking me about the Lugano public where he was supposed to play some weeks later. Than he added: “George, you should play more Martinů, this music is something for you. You have the innate sense of Czech rhythm his music needs so badly.”

I was ecstatic: besides enjoying the company of this great musician, he now was even tracing my chances of “out of the beaten track” repertoire. I was not new to Martinů, having played his Film en miniature for my Prague Conservatory admission, but considering this composer in his entire pianistic production was quite a challenge.

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During the next years we maintained contact, he had written many letters to me and I tried to be present every time he was playing near Switzerland. I recall meeting him at Stresa, Italy, where he listened to my fresh recordings. “You are like my son, George, you know” he told me then, “I can imagine you doing many great things as a pianist.”

I was very happy to see him fulfill his great desire to return to free Czechoslovakia to play recitals and record with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra three Martinů piano concerts, as I knew he refused for forty years to play under the communist regime. Now, with his more than 80 years of age he performed like a lion, with no signs of difficulties.

So it was very strange, while driving my car to Basel, when the Swiss radio announced his death. How was it possible that such a vital man could die?

I would never more have the possibility to consult with him my recordings. Mr. Firkušný, yes, I maintained my word, recording for the first time all the piano music of Martinů and also all his piano concertos. ■

Giorgio Koukl is a pianist/harpsichordist and composer who resides in Lugano, Switzerland. Among his many recordings are the complete solo piano works and complete piano concertos of Bohuslav Martinů on the Naxos label. He has also recorded the piano music of Tansman, Lutosławski, Kapralova, and A. Tcherepnin, amongst others, for the Grand Piano label. Koukl is currently at work recording the solo piano music of Hungarian composer Tibor Harsányi.