Rudolf Firkušný with his wife, Tatiana, at the entrance of Radio Switzerland in Lugano, 12 August 1974. (credit: Giorgio Koukl)

CD Review: Rudolf Firkušný, the Complete RCA and Columbia Album Collection (Sony Classical)

Giorgio Koukl | 12 FEB 2020

Rudolf Firkušný (1912-1994) was a Czech-born, Czech-American classical pianist. His family moved to a village in Moravia called Napajedla, then part of Austro-Hungarian empire and future Czechoslovakia, shortly before Rudolf was born his father was a lawyer. At that time it was quite normal to have a piano in a middle-class household. On this piano the young boy started his first experiments.  According to what his two children told later in various interviews, this joy of considering a piano first of all a marvelous toy to play with, remained in his mind for all his life.

Rudolf Firkušný

Rudolf Firkušný.

Sadly at the age of three he lost his father and so the family moved back to Brno, then the largest city of Moravia and the second biggest town of what is now Czech Republic. Soon the most prominent musician of that time, Leoš Janáček, took interest in the young boy and for more than ten years become his main musical teacher.

Later a generous sum was granted personally by the president of Czechoslovakia and Rudolf was sent first to Berlin and later to Paris to study piano. There a life-long friendship with the composer Bohuslav Martinů started. Many of Martinů’s works present on this 18 CD collection from Sony Classical were written for and dedicated to Firkušný. As we can assume that Martinů actively participated in the process of study we have a unique possibility to listen to probably the most authentic version of this music. Their friendship continued later in the USA where both moved to escape the Nazi troops entering Paris. Here Firkušný started a truly international career as pianist and started to record for RCA and for Columbia.

Rudolf Firkušný: The Complete RCA and Columbia Album Collection (Sony Classical) Rudolf Firkušný, piano; various artists Format: Audio CD (18 disc boxed set), import Label: Sony Classical Release date: September 27, 2019

Rudolf Firkušný: The Complete RCA and Columbia Album Collection (Sony Classical)
Rudolf Firkušný, piano; various artists
Format: Audio CD (18 disc boxed set), import
Label: Sony Classical
Release date: September 27, 2019

We can listen to the earliest recordings of solo piano pieces (1949) of Robert Schumann, Fantasia, Op.17 and “Träumerei” from Kinderszenen, both in mono remastered with all the technology available today. Firkušný shows already his phenomenal technique, an expressivity, depth of dynamic nuances even with all the limitations of the recording technique available to him at the time. There are probably older recordings made for Radio France before World War II, but none of this material was ever released and probably is now destroyed.

The same year, together with violinist Tossy Spivakovsky, Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10 was recorded. Again, despite the mono recording we can admire a broad range of dynamics and a breathtaking technique of both musicians. The first impression is that of absolute control of every single note, where nothing happens if it has not been evaluated, mutually discussed and where every single detail is flawlessly integrated in the whole. I appreciated the noble pianism played with charm and grace, always in service of the solo violin. We today have certainly more “wild” experimental versions, more daring ways to pronounce a musical phrase, but sometimes an old-fashioned way as this certainly is has its warmth and assuring narrative line, so precious and nowadays quasi absent.

Firkušný recorded then mainly the classical range of piano music going from Mozart’s two Fantasias (K.396 and 473) to Schubert’s complete Impromptus (D.899 and D.935).

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As the pianist’s fame grew, he was able to introduce new and less known repertoire to the American public. In 1954 the first version of Dvořák’s Piano Concerto was recorded with George Szell and The Cleveland Orchestra. This concerto, long considered unplayable, was modified in the piano part by Vilém Kurz a Czech virtuoso pianist and for a short time teacher of Firkušný.

So it was only logical that this version was recorded then. We are lucky enough to be able to listen to three more recordings of the same concerto, where Firkušný introduces more and more of the original piano part as written by Dvořák. Finally, at age of 78 years Firkušný records Dvořák’s omplete original version with no changes, de facto playing the “unplayable.” He does so with conductor Vàclav Neumann and the Czech Philharmonics (1990 RCA). This recording is the absolute highlight of the set, played with unimaginable energy, plasticity of the sound and musical radiance.

The interest pianist Rudolf Firkušný took in the living composers of his time is well expressed in different recordings of American composers. First of all the Samuel Barber’s Excursions, Op.20, four short pieces for piano, where all the ability of a pianist to penetrate to a “foreign” world of jazz music is shown. Big range of dynamic shadowing, despite the obvious difficulties of a mono recording, brilliant, bruitistic first movement, a blues as second movement, the third one quasi classical in the beginning, but exploding soon in rapid cascades of notes, finally the last movement a sort of square dance based on repeated notes played with the best technique available . We have to imagine that in 1950 the possibility to correct a wrong place in a recording was very limited not to say non-existent, so all this is played, so to say “live.”

Rudolf Firkušný in 1963

Rudolf Firkušný in 1963

The second American composer whose music is included in the box is Howard Hanson (1896-1981). Hanson’s Pano Concerto Op.36 with the composer conducting the Eastman-Rochester Symphony follows a classical pattern of concerto music. Many other American composers have written for Firkušný, such as Giancarlo Menotti, but no known recording remains.

Generally speaking in the Sony 18 CD box the first seven are mono remastered, the rest are stereo LP or CD. This collection is far from being complete, there is a twenty year gap when he recorded for other companies. It would be certainly useful to have a similar re-edition of missing recordings made mainly for Deutsche Gramophon, Decca or EMI, But even so the rare opportunity to follow an entire life of a recording artist, with different renderings of the same music many decades one distant from the other, is a precious gift for the interested.

Firkušný hated listening to his own old recordings. He always had some possible musical changes in mind and sometimes, even after 30 years, he was able to realize these ideas in a new rendering. This was the case of some of the chamber music recorded, mainly Dvořák quartets and quintets recorded with fifteen years of difference with Julliard Quartet and with the Bridge Quartet. Firkušný maintained excellent contacts with many of the outstanding artists of his time, but he never became a part of a chamber music group.

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The collaborations with Itzak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Gabriela Beňačková (with the later he recorded the little gem of well-chosen songs by the most important Czech composers Dvořák, Janáček and Martinů), Janos Starker and many others are present in this box and show us the wide range of Firkušný’s capacities: a humble piano accompanist with Tossy Spivakovski in Kreisler’s Caprice Viennois Op. 2 or Sarasate’s Introduction and Tarantella, Op.43; a valuable partner in chamber music groups with Dvořák’s piano quartets and quintets; a mighty soloist with orchestra like in the precise and soft version of Cesar Franck’s Symphonic Variations with Claus Peter Flor and the Royal Philharmonics; and surely the most important function: the solo pianist with a breathtaking, spectacular technique reaching in the 1989 recording of the complete piano music of Janáček and in the recording of the few chosen pieces of Martinů’s piano music (1988) — absolute height of elegance, finest shadowing of dynamic range, a very special use of pedal and a breathtaking technique where nothing seems to be too difficult.

In a box, where even some music without Firkušný is present (but who would not like the delicious rendering of Paganini’s famous Caprice, Op. 1 No.24, for violin solo played by Spivakovski, a theme so often used by other composers like Rachmaninoff and later on by Witold Lutoslawski, it is really difficult to name all the aspects. Surely Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata with Gregor Piatigorski, played with noble musical line interrupted by the most barbaric outcry so typical of the composer’s world, and surely the three cello sonatas of Martinů recorded with Janos Starker in 1990, and until now never played better, deserve our special attention.

Piano powerhouses: Rudolf Firkušný, Nikita Magaloff and Arthur Rubinstein (1960)

Piano powerhouses: Rudolf Firkušný, Nikita Magaloff and Arthur Rubinstein (1960)

But the most iconic recording is that realised in Czechoslowakia, finally liberated from the oppresive communist regime, where Rudolf Firkušný returns after a half century of absence to be greeted like a king and at the age of 81 years records three piano concertos of Bohuslav Martinů: Nos. 2, 3 and 4, most of them written for him fifty years before and with the help of conductor Libor Pešek and the Czech Philharmonics, definitely the last and final version. This rendering has no equal, the music is played with enthusiasm and joy to be again in his own land as a free man. There are no signs of physical weakness, no signs of decaying technique, the technical capacity is the same like in the first recordings, but a whole world of finesse, elegance and experience of a productive life are present.

Only one year later Rudolf Firkušný died and is now buried in the cemetery of his beloved Moravian city of Brno. ■

Giorgio Koukl is a Czech-born 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.