Obituary: Rudolf Firkusny

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The Independent Online
Rudolf Firkusny, concert pianist, composer and teacher: born Napajedla, Moravia 11 February 1912; married 1965 Tatana Nevolova (one daughter, one son); died Staatsburg, New York 19 July 1994.

RUDOLF FIRKUSNY was one of the greatest concert pianists of this century. He was one of the last direct personal links with most of the important figures in Czech history from the latter part of last century and the first half of this - not only musicians like Janacek, Martinu, Suk, Novak and Talich, artists like Alfons Mucha and Jan Zrzavy, but also national figures like Tomas Garrigue Masaryk and his son Jan.

Rudolf Firkusny was born in the small Moravian town of Napa jedla but his father died in 1915 and his mother moved to Brno. Rudolf's early natural talent resulted in his going, at the age of five, to study composition and piano with Leos Janacek. He remained a close friend of Janacek's until the composer's death in 1928, Janacek treating Firkusny almost as 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. To the end of his life Firkusny remained a champion of the music of his teacher, his performances dramatically powerful and intimately searching, often appearing to depart in some details from the printed scores until he showed you his own copies, in which were to be found the last ideas in Janacek's hand.

Piano studies continued at the Brno Conservatory with Ruzena Kurzova until 1927, when Firkusny was sent to the Prague Conservatory to study piano under Vilem Kurz and composition with Rudolf Karel for the next two years, 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. Although he wrote a string quartet and many piano pieces, composition was not to detain him, since the concert platform was already demanding his attention. 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 which made him a superb interpreter of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms.

Thanks initially to TG Masaryk, Firkusny was given the opportunity to go to Paris, just as he had made it possible for Bohuslav Martinu to go there to study from 1923. Here Firkusny found himself in the heady artistic atmosphere of the city, and was absorbed into the small colony of Czech artists. These included Martinu and the very attractive young Vitezslava Kapralov among the composers, the painters Jan Zrzavy and Rudolf Kundera, as well as the writer Jiri Mucha.

It is from this period that Firkusny's other great musical friendship developed. Although he had known Martinu, some 22 years his senior, from Brno days, it was from 1939 until Martinu's death in 1959 that they became like brothers. Indeed, Firkusny knew more about the details of the last 20 years of Martinu's life than any biographer will ever be able to tell us. It was thanks to Firkusny that Martinu and his wife were able to escape from Paris in 1940 just ahead of the German army. They, like Firkusny, 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 Janacek, so Firkusny promoted the music of Martinu in his concerts. In return Martinu dedicated a number of works to him, including the Piano Concerto No 3, while Firkusny gave the premieres of several other works, among which were the Piano Concertos Nos 2 and 5.

Whereas Martinu did return to Europe, he could never return home for political reasons. Firkusny was never a politcial emigrant and did return to Czechoslovakia after 1948 to visit his mother and sisters (his brother Leos, a noted musicologist, died in Buenos Aires in 1950). His decision not to return home to live was a difficult one but he said: 'What influenced me most was the report of Jan Masaryk's suicide.' However, in spite of many official invitations and personal pleas, he diplomatically refused to perform there while the country remained under Communist control.

unlike another lifelong friend, the conductor Rafael Kubelik, who had left during the Communist era, Rudolf Firkusny never refused to play with his fellow countrymen if they were touring in the free world and he often appeared as a soloist with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Perhaps the most moving of such occasions came in 1986 when, for the only time in their careers, Firkusny and the Smetana Quartet came together for a performance of Dvorak's Piano Quintet (Op 81) at Abbotsholm in Derbyshire. Again, in 1991 he joined the violinist Josef Suk (grandson of his composer teacher) for the first time, in a recital at the Edinburgh Festival.

Rudolf Firkusny was first and foremost a supreme musician, his prodigious technique totally at the service of the music, disguising his power with a style which appeared effortless, in keeping with a character which eschewed flamboyance and self-aggrandisement but which projected warmth and kindness. At the same time, at the keyboard he could produce all the dynamic range and colour which the music demanded. 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 and lately with the soprano Gabriela Benackova.

In recent years, he occasionally asked me to turn the pages for him at concerts in Edinburgh and Prague. One such occasion was at the end of the 1990 Edinburgh festival when, having played Martinu's Piano Concerto No 2 at the start of the festival, given a stunning solo recital, joined the Panocha Quartet in Dvorak's Piano Quintet and taken the orchestral piano part in Martinu's Harpsichord Concerto, he performed Martinu's Piano Concerto No 3. Never once did he glance at the score, but to watch those hands glide over the keyboard recreating the music of his friend was something special.

To be able to return to his homeland after November 1989 and to perform there again was perhaps the greatest joy of his last years. Like Kubelik, he took part in the 1990 Prague Spring Festival, both having also appeared at the first festival, in 1946. He appeared there again in 1992, illness only preventing him from performing also this year. In between he took pleasure in performing in other parts of the Czech Republic. In 1992 he gave a concert in Napajedla, the piano having to be brought specially to the town and he received a welcome fit for their famous son.

After the Revolution of 1989, many honours were showered upon Firkusny in his homeland. Particularly touching for him was the award of the Order of Tomas Masaryk by President Havel in 1991, since Masaryk had been his supporter in the 1930s. In 1990 he and Kubleik received honorary doctorates from Charles University in Prague. In 1992 the Masaryk University in Brno conferred a similar honour, as did the Janacek Academy there in the following year, all of which he accepted with typicla modesty.

Perhaps one of the most delightful occasions for him last year was to visit Dvorak's summer house at Vysoka, south of Prague, for the first time. Here, Firkusny was welcomed by Dvorak's last surviving granddaughter, Vera Johnova. Having been shown the many Dvorak treasures there, including the composer's old upright piano, our small group stood deep in conversation while Firkusny slipped back to that instrument, opened its lid and gently touched a few of its very out-of-tune notes. Then he sat down and proceeded to give a beautiful performance of one of Dvorak's many lovely piano pieces. The conversation stopped but he was not playing for us, he was holding his own personal communion with his great forebear.

Rudolf Firkusny's one regret was not having time enough left to hand on his knowledge to the present generation of Czech music students. We are fortunate that he has left a small legacy of recordings, all of the highest quality, not least those of music of Smetana, Dvorak, Janacek and Martinu. Sadly a project of Mozart Piano Quartets with Supraphon remains unfinished.

Throughout the last 30 years of his life, Rudolf Firkusny's true happiness lay in the love of his wife Tatana and in that for his children and grandchildren. It was during a visit to his mother at Prerov that he met his future wife, some 33 years younger than him and the daughter of an old friend of his. They were married there in 1965 and it was a perfect match. The support of Tatana, never obtrusive in his performing career but always present when needed, undoubtedly made possible his long life, active to almost the very end. Their New York home is only two minutes' walk from the Juilliard School of Music, where he was the most sought-after of teachers. (He taught also at the Aspen School of Music in Colorado.) Janacek and Dvorak autographs adorn its walls; Martinu autograph scores can be found at your bedside. But above all, while the world of music has lost one of its finest sons, it is that gentle humanity, quiet humour, open mind and ever warm heart that will be missed for ever by those who knew him as a friend.

(Photograph omitted)