Supraphon SU 3857-2, 70:22 (Distrib. Qualiton) ****:
The opportunity to hear two old masters of their musical trade in concert from the Prague Spring International Music Festival in the Dvorak Hall, Prague 18 May 1992 requires your RSVP with all due haste. I met renowned pianist Rudolf Firkusny (1912-1994) several times in Atlanta for interviews, once after his Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. He used to refer to me as “that fellow who likes to talk about Vaclav Talich.” A student of Janacek and Martinu, a pupil and colleague of Artur Schnabel, Firkusny combined a genial yet fiery temperament with a powerful technical arsenal, and together they could make poetry. His Schubert Impromptus on CBS (ML 4527) still need to return to the CD format. Josef Suk (b. 1929) has been a force in music ever since he studied with his grandfather/composer, as well as with Jaroslav Kocian. When it comes to the blazing rendition of Brahms Sonata with Firkusny, collectors will recall no less fondly the commercial reading Suk made of the entire sonata cycle with the late Julius Katchen. Firkusny congoscenti will fondly review the recordings he made of the Brahms and several Beethoven sonatas with Morini and Milstein. But I think this startling account will emblazon itself on your musical memory as among the most virile, symphonically uncompromising interpretations of the D Minor Sonata ever.
From the opening bars of the Dvorak Sonatina in G, we are in the throes of two kindred spirits, engaged in direct musical expression. The Dvorak Sonatina (1893) was conceived as a vehicle for the composer’s own children, but it by no means condescends melodically nor technically. Pentatonic scales and fierce Moravian rhythms highlight a splendidly melodious work, whose second movement was supposedly inspired by a Mississippi waterfall. The last movement could be a Gottschalk hoedown. The rasping Scherzo has Suk and Firkusny in fine fettle, the sparks flying.
Slavic turns of phrase punctuate the Janacek Sonata (1914-1921), a piece whose slow evolution encompassed the dark days of WW I and whose sensibilities are often emotionally extreme, close to the canvasses of Edvard Munch. The convulsive opening eventually yields to a more approachable, albeit anguished melos, to which Suk and Firkusny warm as the music proceeds. The rippling effects Firkusny achieves for the Ballada movement, the tranquility of Suk’s expression, make this section Janacek’s Pastoral Symphony. The modal Adagio, with its fitful saltandi, might prove anticlimactic after the superheated Allegretto, were in not for totally rapt intensity of our two performers. The repeated notes in the keyboard might have a shade of Dvorak’s Dumky Trio, and then the music disappears. We began in G Major, and we end in G, or at least in Beethoven’s approximation of the mixolydian mode. The alternation of trills between the two instruments in the first movement is pure magic. The lovely Adagio espessivo, which features a romantic cadenza passage, is the partners’ hymn to music. That simple directness of musical communication to which I alluded earlier is the order of the day. The segue to the skittish Scherzo is seamless, the writing economical in the manner of the Eighth Symphony. On the last note of the Poco allegretto, the audience breaks out, erupts, explodes; and for all I know, they’re still clapping.