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Rudolf Firkušný

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Rudolf Firkušný was one of the greatest concert pianists of the last century. These previously unpublished German radio recordings between 1957 and 1964 tribute to Rudolf Firkušný. It captures Firkušný in prime and magnificent form. His Schumann is a must! He seemed to find notes to play that the other pianists somehow seemed to miss. Poetry and lovely detail were one of the qualities of Firkušný’s playing and he never quite loses his sense of overarching architecture. At the piano he could produce all the dynamic range and colour which the music demanded.

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RUDOLF FIRKUŠNÝ plays Mozart, Schumann & Schubert

1. Mozart: Fantasie in C minor, KV.396/KV.385f [07:42]
Recorded ∙ 28 September 1957 ∙ Ludwigsburg ∙ Schloß Ordenssaal ∙ Süddeutscher Rundfunk ∙ Live Recording

2-19. Schumann: Davidsbündlertänze, op. 6 [30:16]
I. Lebhaft [01:39]
II. Innig [01:06]
III. Mit Humor [00:42]
IV. Ungeduldig [00:42]
V. Einfach [02:03]
VI. Sehr rasch [01:24]
VII. Nicht schnell [03:19]
VIII. Frisch [00:56]
IX. Lebhaft [01:21]
X. Balladenmässig: Sehr rasch [01:15]
XI. Einfach [01:34]
XII. Mit Humor [00:37]
XIII. Wild und lustig [01:55]
XIV. Zart und singend [02:31]
XV. Frisch [01:59]
XVI. Mit gutem Humor [01:30]
XVII. Wie aus der Ferne [03:08]
XVIII. Nicht schnell [01:45]
Recorded ∙ 28 January 1960 ∙ Baden-Baden ∙ Musikstudio ∙ Südwestfunk ∙ Radio Studio Recording

20-22. Schubert: Drei Klavierstücke, D 946 [19:33]
I. Allegro assai [08:37]
II. Allegretto [06:55]
III. Allegro [04:01]
Recorded ∙ 14 December 1961 ∙ Baden-Baden ∙ Musikstudio ∙ Südwestfunk ∙ Radio Studio Recording

23-35. Schumann: Kinderszenen, op. 15 [15:50]
I. Von fremden Ländern und Menschen [01:24]
II. Kuriose Geschichte [00:57]
III. Hasche-Mann [00:30]
IV. Bittendes Kind [00:38]
V. Glückes genug [01:15]
VI. Wichtige Begebenheit [00:46]
VII. Träumerei [02:15]
VIII. Am Kamin [00:45]
IX. Ritter vom Steckenpferd [00:43]
X. Fast zu ernst [01:21]
XI. Fürchtenmachen [01:24]
XII. Kind im Einschlummern [03:47]
XIII. Der Dichter spricht [02:20]
Recorded ∙ 31 October 1964 ∙ Baden-Baden ∙ Musikstudio ∙ Südwestfunk ∙ Radio Studio Recording

In cooperation with Véronique and Igor Firkušný, the children of Rudolf Firkušný

Please note that this free version of the booklet is for your personal use only! We kindly ask you to respect our copyright and the intellectual property of our artists and writers. Download DigiBooklet

“It’s the learning, the living each day with the music and recognising how little you know, that keeps you motivated.” – Rudolf Firkušný.

Rudolf ‘Ruda’ Firkušný was born on 11 February 1912 in Napajedla, Moravia, Austria-Hungary [now Czech Republic] the youngest of three children to the family of Rudolf Firkušný, a notary public. “My father grew up in great poverty but also with the great privilege of having extraordinary mentors,” said his daughter, Véronique Firkušný. Upon his father’s premature death, Firkušný’s mother moved with her children Rudolf, his brother Leoš, and their sister Marie to Brno to search for better opportunities. “His mother was scrambling to make ends meet, and he found his way to the piano as a way of entertaining himself,” his daughter added. “He always said that the piano was his favourite plaything.” Firkušný received his first music lessons from a theatre flautist in Brno, but the crucial moment affecting his entire further career was meeting the composer Leoš Janáček. Janáček treated Firkušný almost like a son (his own son having died in 1890 and his daughter in 1903), often taking the young Rudolf with him to performances of his works. Firkušný said, “I studied with Janáček when I was five years old. I saw the piano as a toy, my mother, who was not musical, found me a teacher in Brno. Janáček took care of my musical and other education. He didn’t want me to become a child prodigy, or oriented just to one line of learning. He wanted me to become a full human being. He believed that was very important.” Because Firkušný was so young when he started lessons, his teacher used to send him cookies, and the Janáčeks would take the boy with them to premieres of Janáček’s operas. Firkušný was 10 years old when he played his first concert in Brno. “I remember everything,” said Firkušný with a broad grin. “I was delighted especially that I didn’t have to go to school on concert day. People in Europe give flowers to the men also. And I remember the flowers, cake and candy because I was little.”

After that, Firkušný gave concerts but once a year. He gave a highly acclaimed recital in Vienna on 30 October 1926 at the age of 14 that included Bach’s Capriccio in B-flat major, BWV 992 (arranged by Busoni); Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.13, Op.27/1; Chopin’s Polonaise op. 40/1, Etude op. 25/1 and op. 10/8; Novák’s Nocturne, and Debussy’s Children’s Corner. Not until he was 17 did he become a professional concertizing pianist. He remained a close friend of Janáček’s until the composer’s death in 1928. Piano studies continued at the Brno Conservatory with Růžena Kurzová until 1927, when Firkušný was sent to the Prague Conservatory for the next two years to study piano under Professor Vilém Kurz and composition with Rudolf Karel (who would be murdered March 6, 1945 in Theresienstadt), playing his own Piano Concerto at his graduation concert in 1929. He remained a piano student of Kurz’s until 1931 and took lessons in composition with Josef Suk in 1929 and 1930. Thanks to the government scholarship, Firkušný could visit the “École normale de Musique,“ where he longed to study with the renowned French pianist Alfred Cortot. He took part in master classes by Marguerite Long and Yves Nat, but when he met Cortot to audition for him, the latter embraced him and said, “You do not need a teacher, but an audience!” Instead of studies he offered him a performance, which he himself conducted, and invited him to be a member of the jury for a piano competition. His Prague concert debut had come in 1920, with Vienna following in 1923, Berlin in 1927, Paris in 1928, London in 1933, and New York in 1938. His immediate success brought him to the attention of Artur Schnabel, with whom he later worked and from whom he learnt so much that made him a superb interpreter of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms.

In the late 1930s, after the Nazis had annexed Czechoslovakia, Firkušný met with a Czech official [it was František Chvalkovský, who became Minister of Foreign Affairs after Beneš was forced to step down as President] who proffered an invitation to concertize in Germany and even perform for Hitler. Firkušný replied, “I will be happy to play in any tiny hole anywhere in Czechoslovakia, but I will not set foot in Germany while the occupation lasts.” Told that the invitation, if refused, would become an order, Firkušný knew he had to leave. “It was on the eve of my departure for a concert tour in France and England when I applied to the Gestapo for permission to buy a railroad ticket, and was told, ‘It is out of the question,’” Firkušný said once in telling how he left Prague. “But finally, after much contacting of various officials, I was given the precious paper which would allow me to leave on the tour. I was allowed to take nothing but a suitcase—therefore I had to leave everything else behind, all my music and collection of rare manuscripts.” It took him eight months to get from Prague to Paris, through Spain and Portugal, before he arrived in New York, where he was embraced by the Czech community.

At first, thanks to the help of Sir Thomas Beecham, he was invited to the open-air festival in Ravinia, playing Dvořák’s Piano Concerto on 12 July 1941. Following this success, he performed the same year a carefully prepared recital in Town Hall which was given in a borrowed dress suit which, the young Firkušný smilingly related, did not permit enough freedom to cross his hands on the piano. This time he was not only able to show himself off as a virtuoso, but also as a master par excellence. His performance received a strong positive reaction not only from the press but also from the distinguished audience, which included some great pianists, many of whom were residing temporarily or permanently in the U.S. at that time. All at once, upon signing an exclusive contract with the foremost concert agency of that time, Columbia Artists Management, Inc., the gates to the whole world were open to him. During the forties, thanks to his enormous dedication, Firkušný finally succeeded in establishing himself as one of the world’s great pianists, and he embarked on many successful tours in North and South America.
It was thanks to Firkušný that Bohuslav Martinů and his wife were able to escape from Paris in 1940 just ahead of the German army. They, like Firkušný, made their way via the south of France, through Spain and Portugal, to embark for the United States, arriving in New York in 1941. Both men made their homes in the US, neither liking either the Nazi or the Communist regimes which were to dominate their homeland for 50 years. As with the music of Janáček, Firkušný promoted the music of Martinů in his concerts. In return Martinů dedicated a number of works to him, including the Piano Concerto No. 3, while Firkušný gave the premieres of several other works, among which were the Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 4.

Subsequently he became an American citizen, but that didn’t mean he relinquished his sense of nationality or the culture in which he was raised. Quite the opposite: his commitment to promoting Czech music grew even stronger. He went back to his homeland for the Prague Spring Festival of 1946, and performed the world premiere of Martinů’s Piano Concerto No. 2. But cautioned not to repatriate, he returned to New York just before the Iron Curtain went up. After 1948, he returned to Czechoslovakia only privately to visit his mother and sister (his brother Leoš, a noted musicologist, died in Buenos Aires in 1950). It was during a visit to his mother in Přerov that he met his future wife, some 33 years younger than he and the daughter of a family friend. They were married there in 1965 and it was a perfect match. The support of Tatiana was never obtrusive in his performing career but always present when needed. She became not only a wonderful life partner, able to ensure his privacy and organize his busy schedule, but also the mother of his two children, daughter Véronique and son Igor, and adoring grandmother of Silvia, Christopher, and Alexa. Their New York home was only two minutes’ walk from the Juilliard School of Music, where Firkušný was a member of the Juilliard faculty from 1965 to 1994. When his concert schedule permitted, Firkušný enjoyed spending time with his wife and their two children at his country home in Staatsburg near Rhinecliff-on-the-Hudson. “No, they do not play professionally,” he said of his youngsters. “My son plays the violin, however, and my daughter likes music. That’s very important—we need an audience,” he said with a big smile.

Firkušný performed all over the United States, as well as in Europe and Japan. He was a frequent soloist with all major orchestras and a favourite collaborator of George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. In 1980, he said “I have since made 26 tours of Europe, 10 of South America, 12 of Mexico, two of Australia, three of Israel and two of Japan, as well as performing at practically all the great music festivals from Salzburg to the Hollywood Bowl.” He was one of the last direct personal links with most of the important figures in Czech history of last century. In 1979 Firkušný was awarded Czechoslovakia’s rarely-given Janáček Medal for his cultural contributions to Janáček and Czech music. Perhaps it was from Schnabel also that he developed his sensitivity as a chamber-music partner, forming fine duo relationships with cellists like Pierre Fournier and Janos Starker.

Rudolf Firkušný died in Staatsburg, New York State, on 19 July 1994. His wife, Tatiana Nevolová Firkušný, died on January 11, 2005 at age 60 in New York.

Notes by Michael Waiblinger, © 2015

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Article number: MC 1032
UPC barcode: 791154054086
Recording dates: 1957-1964
Release date: March 2015
Total timing: 73:22

Producer and Audio Restoration: Lynn Ludwig
Booklet Notes: Michael Waiblinger
Design: Alessia Issara
Photographs: Véronique and Igor Firkušný Collection
With special thanks to Véronique and Igor Firkušný
From the Original Masters ∙ © 2015 Meloclassic