Prague Spring’s November Mini-Festival

Opus OsmThe venerable Prague Spring International Music Festival inaugurates the first autumn Rudolf Firkušný Piano Festival Nov 24-30.

Rudolf Firkušný is still ranked as one of the greatest 20th-century pianists, and this Prague Spring festival’s “supplemental” festival is a tribute to him.

Four concerts will span only one week, but feature some of the finest pianists in the world — Emanuel Ax (US), Nov 24; Dénes Várjon (Hungary), Nov 26; and Lise De La Salle (France), Nov 30. Czech pianist Lukáš Vondráček will perform Nov 28.

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Rudolf Firkušný and best friend, in Brno, 1938

But if you’re new to classical music, or you only know the Firkušný name from recordings, you might be curious about his life [see box, below] and his celebrated interpretation of music for the piano.

Opus Osm asked the following four contemporary pianists for their memories or impressions of Mr Firkušný. You’ll notice they use similar words to describe his personality.

They also pass along clues about what made his performances unique – clues that can help enrich your own piano performance, or make your own listening experience richer.

From the Young Generation: Jan Šimandl
The 22-year-old Brno pianist establishing his career as a pianist

“Mr Firkušný is one of the most famous names in Czech piano music for me. He emigrated and nevertheless was able to spread his piano artistry all over the world. Because of his personality he became an icon, whom people should be proud of.

Jan Šimandl

“Modesty is the most important means of music. It is his modest playing which is interesting for ordinary pianists. He played without excessive rubatos and without excessive dynamics and without other ‘mannerisms.’ It is very attractive for foreigners.

“His playing is very knowledgeable and it afforded Mr Firkušný the opportunity to improve his piano playing skills and successfully build spacious musical forms with foolproof logic and an emotional plan.

“I learn from his recordings and I’m interested in the manner of his teaching. I participated in Mr Firkušný’s pupils’ lessons (E Halim, A Arad, D Buys). All were great pianists and were able to help. They said at the first piano lesson by Mr Firkušný the learner had to play the score in C major from the softest dynamic to the loudest. I think it is a good training for learning to hear.”

From Across the Ocean: Diana Egbers Fanning
An established US pianist and teacher, who performed in Prague last spring

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Diana Fanning

“I am sorry to say that I never had any personal contact with this beloved pianist, but of course I know his recordings and have read of his inspirational teaching at the Juilliard School in New York City. His approach to music was poetic, insightful, and deeply thoughtful. To me, he was a model of fine musicianship and his playing always touched my heart.

“We owe him a great debt of gratitude for his eloquent performances of works by Czech composers, especially Janáček and Martinů. He was instrumental in introducing this wonderful music to the world, not only through his beautiful interpretations but also as an articulate and passionate spokesman for Czech composers.”

From the Established Generation: Michal Mašek
Czech pianist, musicologist, music projects creator

Michal Mašek

Mr Mašek explains at 14 his teacher was preparing him for the Conservatory entrance exam. He named some famous Czech pianists, and his teacher added Rudolf Firkušný. “I ask him: Who is he? I have never heard the name. … And I thought: … he will probably be some friend of the teacher, otherwise I would definitely know about him. … None of my piano teachers had ever mentioned him, even if I asked … at most some said he was the one who left for America. …
“If one focuses on his playing, there is especially a great sense for the leading tones. For particular ties between these notes.

“It is one of the capabilities which cannot be learnt or copied in any way. It is given by one’s inherent sensitivity or nature and distinguishes the average from the best. In a crucial moment, Firkušný stresses something which is passed over by others without noticing.

“… He is an artist for whom not the particular notes are important but the whole. It is interesting how this quality disappears at the present day artists. They are extremely focused on particular notes but the content escapes.

Try Before You Buy: Rudolf Firkušný
The Municipal Library of Prague has several CDs of Mr Firkusny’s performances, plus some biographical materials and articles (mostly in Czech).

“… He left behind many unsurpassable recordings which can easily be denoted as milestones, as examples. … Unjustly, he was not included in the [music recording] editions of the great pianists of the 20th century. And it is a real pity, because like Martinů or Kubelík, he was within himself, contrary to others a real Czech of the world’s size.”

From Mr Firkušný’s Former Student: Dora Nováková Wilmington
The daughter of composer Jan Novák (1921-84), who first auditioned for family friend Rudolf Firkušný in 1970, and studied with him at Juilliard

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Dora Nováková Wilmington

“I sat down at the piano and he sat in the back of the room. He was sitting, listening, and smoking his pipe! He was almost relaxed, and smiling – not intense, but just listening. He was full of jokes and humor. Once he had on a pair of leather gloves, and he asked me, ‘Have you ever played Mozart in gloves?’ And he started playing like that!

“His speciality was his immediacy, as if he was composing the piece just at the moment he was playing it. Nothing was overdone, nothing was for show. He was too noble for that. He had a philosopher’s overview of the world. He was like a philosopher, not being in agitation. He wasn’t a pedagogue, he was a master. He played everything, everything by heart. He was really unique — noble. He was a true artist, which is a true human in harmony with himself.

“Once he played me the first chord of [Beethoven's] Pathetique like — ” she demonstrates an almost explosive chord on the piano — “and the whole world opened. It was a phenomenal sound that expressed so much intensity and darkness. I was 17 then, and that sound has stayed in my ears ’til today.” — oo

About Rudolf Firkušný (1912-1994)

A friend of Bohuslav Martinů and pupil of Leoš Janáček and Josef Suk, Mr Firkušný debuted with the Czech Philharmonic at age 10. He studied in Paris, performed in New York in 1941, and returned to Czechoslovakia in 1945 as a world-famous pianist. He gave concerts, under conductor Rafael Kubelík, at the first Prague Spring festival a year later.But in 1948 he fled to the US and eventually became a permanent resident and citizen. He finally returned to the Czech Republic in 1990, and performed at only his second Prague Spring festival, but again with his old friend Mr Kubelík.‘I am delighted that I lived to see the day that I could return home,’ he was quoted then. ‘I was moved that I was welcomed by the local audience, which actually did not know me.’

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Opus Osm email interview with Jan Šimandl by Lenka Kučerová, postgraduate student of musicology, Masaryk University in Brno; email interview with Diana Egbers Fanning, in-person interview with Dora Nováková Wilmington, and conference speech excerpts used by permission of Michal Masek by Mary Matz, Opus Osm editor. This article was originally published on Nov 5, 2013.

Photo Credits: Top: Bigfoto; R Fukušný, Firkušný Facebook fan page; J Šimandl, website; D E Fanning, Miroslav Setnička; M Mašek, c Jakub Ludvík; D N Wilmington, Miroslav Setnička

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