Rudolf Fikrušny – Soloist and Partner – Profil

by | Aug 31, 2021 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Rudolf Fikrušny – Soloist and Partner – Profil 19013 (10 CDs:11 hrs 27 mins) (8/7/2020) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

(complete listing of compositions and artists appended)

The finely honed artistry of Czech pianist Rudolf Firkusny (1912-1994) has here in these 10 CDs an impressive display gleaned from performances previously issued in alternative formats. In one of my several conversations with Firkusny in Atlanta at his appearances with the Atlanta Symphony, I asked why no document of his collaboration with Czechoslovakia’s greatest maestro, Vaclav Talich, exists. “We had temperamental issues, and we performed infrequently; my lasting memory is of a concerto by Sergei Bortkiewicz, which record companies declined.” Of the various conductors with whom Firkusny worked, his favorite remained Rafael Kubelik. I made my first acquaintance with Firkusny’s art in the Capitol recording of the Beethoven Emperor Concerto from 1958, a reading from Pittsburgh with William Steinberg of exalted transparency and resounding élan. Happily, for this reviewer other prior recordings, both on Lp and CD, long prepared me to comment on the general, superlative quality of the performances assembled here.

A student of Leos Janacek and Vilem Kurz, Firkusny championed the Janacek piano works, as he did those of Martinu. Too often, record companies like RCA kept a narrow focus on Firkusy’s repertory, which extended well beyond Czech music. His style always managed elegance and refined sensitivity, coupled with a potent technical arsenal that sought color shadings and dynamics of expression over sheer bravura thunder. Thus, the extensive set opens with a 1957 Salzburg concert (from the Orfeo label) of the Janacek  Sonata Oct. 1, 1905, a reading declamatory and impassioned of a work meant to enshrine individual resistance to tyranny. The recording of Martinu’s Concerto No. 4 – dedicated to Firkusny – comes also from 1957 Edinburgh, with the Phiharmonia Orchestra under Rafael Kubelik. The last of the live performances of 1957 comes from Cologne with Kubelik, with Dvorak’s Piano Concerto in a hybrid edition prepared by Vilem Kurz and Firkusny, with more fioritura than Kurz permitted in his highly cut version of this “concerto for two right hands.” Kubelik’s conducting has power and good, fluent articulation, especially in the woodwinds. Firkusny made seven recorded documents of this lyrical work, and that with George Szell – despite the drastic elisions – still hangs fire for a 1954 studio performance. Firkusny remarked that he and Mitropoulos performed the work in Minneapolis; and after the first rehearsal, Mitropoulos had the concerto memorized. Caveat: this Profil issue of the Dvorak suffers the reversal of the last two movements, so plan your automatic tracking accordingly.

Much of the duo-recital repertory collected here derives from both Decca and Capitol recordings with distinguished violinists, of whom Austrian-born Erica Morini (1904-1995) occupies pride of place. Once touted as “the greatest woman violinist who ever lived” by Harold C. Schonberg of The New York Times, Morini cast off the epithet with “a violinist is  violinist.” Her work with Firkusny shines in an intimate reading of Beethoven’s C Minor Sonata from 1961, in which she restricts her old-world portamento and Firkusny his occasionally percussive dynamics, which rather adds to the sturm und drang captured in Beethoven’s affective world. Firkusny embodied a veteran Mozart player, and his and Morini’s work in the 1785 Mozart Sonata in E-flat Major, K. 481 achieves marvelous balance in a brilliant piece whose second movement, Adagio, proves a most experimental effort in enharmonic color and the alteration of key signatures. Morini’s tone can appear thin and nasal but pitch accurate and disarmingly poignant. She and Firkusny make good points in the last movement Allegretto – Adagio, which features a theme and variations that Firkusny’s left hand makes exemplary at key moments. The Mozart C Minor Piano Sonata, K. 457 from 1950 Columbia Records possesses an incisive bite and potent momentum, despite the unflattering acoustic from the recording studio. Mozart’s two fantasias in C Minor recorded at the same 1950 session appear on Disc 8 and no less convey the power of Mozart contribution to the sturm und drang sensibility. The last of the Morini collaborations with Firkusny appears on Disc 2, the Violin Sonata in A of Franck, serving as a complement to a volcanic reading of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor from the New York Philharmonic with Hans Rosbaud, also 1961. The Franck seems at moments emotionally askew, subdued and mannered, lacking the “orchestral” sheen in Firkusny’s playing that makes the recordings of Brahms, Debussy, and Chopin assembled in the set so compelling. Nevertheless, moments of flaring intensity do emerge in the Franck that warrant our respect, even given our preference for those renditions by Ferras, Oistrakh, Grumiaux, and Francescatti.

The dominant moments of bravura occur in the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 (which had appeared on the pirate Archipel label) with Hans Rosbaud, a tempestuous performance on a par with favored appearances in New York by Myra Hess and William Kapell, both with Dimitiri Mitropoulos. From the aforementioned 16 August 1957 Salzburg recital, we have a fabulous Chopin Piano Sonata in B Minor, glowing in its phrasing and judicious use of pedal to color its four movements, especially the immense nocturne that comprises the Largo. Concluding this concert, Firkusny chooses Mussorgsky’s suite Pictures at an Exhibition, played more for personal intimacy than for the grand line we receive from the various Sviatoslav Richter performances. “Gnomus” casts an eerie miasma into the mix, as required. “Il Vecchio castello” sings a plaint well suited to the trouvères of yesterday. If “Bydlo” does not quite resound in earth-shaking tones, the massive oxcart still manages to capture the weariness of its labors. Firkusny’s sense of erotic color heightens the toccata flurry of “Limoges,” and the “Catacombs” and “With the Dead in a Dead Language” with the Dantesque chromatics we see visually in the Gustav Doré illustrations. On a different level of virtuosity, more intrinsically poetic, the Schumann Fantasie in C from Columbia Records 1949 here has enriched sonics over its 78rpm and early Lp incarnation, and the result proves gripping. That same year, 1949, has Firkusny’s collaborating for Columbia with violinist Tossy Spivakovsky (1906-1998) in Beethoven’s Sonata No. 10 in G Major, which evolves with seamless lyricism. 

Firkusny turns to the music of Beethoven specifically on Disc 3, with the three sonatas he recorded for Capitol, 1960 and 1962. Each enjoys an aristocratic approach, with his taking the repeat in the opening movement of the Pathetique and subsequently remaining true to the music’s “recoverable contexts” noted by J.W.N. Sullivan. The serenity of the Adagio cantabile requires little comment. The mysteries of the abyss await auditors of Firkusny’s Moonlight Sonata, performed with self-effacing clarity. The Waldstein generates brilliant energy (though soft on color contrasts), without the loss of control Virgil Thomson both lamented and parodied in an early New York recital by Firkusny. The last of the Beethoven collaborations of note documents the 1959 Spring Sonata from Capitol Records, played with vivacious gusto with the incomparable Nathan Milstein (1903-1992). In the music of Brahms, for which Firkusny possesses an unforced, lyrical affinity, we have the two Viola Sonatas (mis-labeled “violin” in the program notes) from Capitol, 1958, with the ever-active William Primrose (1904-1982), esteemed for his passionate virtuosity. The two works themselves, written late in the composer’s career, seem to project, in their F Minor and E-flat Major character, something equivalent to Schumann’s dual nature in Eusebius and Florestan. The series of 10 Klavierstücke from 1959 provides much stylistic satisfaction, given Firksuny’s unrushed, epic, Rhapsody in G Minor and haunted bass lines in the two capriccios from Op. 76 and Op. 116, respectively. Rarely, perhaps only equally from Gieseking, has the A-flat Intermezzo, Op. 76, No. 3 resonated with such clarion intimacy.

The plastic, harmonically rich late Brahms, which prefigures much in Debussy, finds fulfillment in Disc 9, Firkusny’s Debussy triptych from Capitol 1956: the Suite Bergamasque, Estampes, and Children’s Corner rendered with acuity and sensitivity. As maudlin as it might seem, I played the last two sections of the 1890 (rev. 1905) Suite, “Claire de Lune” and “Passepied,” twice, if only to savor the vibrancy of Firkusny’s natural insight into the Debussy ethos. CD 10 returns to the sometimes esoteric world of Leos Janacek, especially his Concertino, performed by Firkusny in 1953 with members of the Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet. The series of Janacek pieces, which Firkusny would address later on records for DGG, project intimacy and color, but the American players feel unsure of their medium. My survey concludes with the restoration of Firkusny’s Schubert Impromptus (from Columbia ML 4527), the eight pieces, or sonata-fragments, as one chooses, played with the temperamental affinity that we know from Artur Schnabel and his ilk of successors, for each of whom Firkusny proves aptly a worthy acolyte. 

To serve as an introduction to the high quality of playing and breadth of repertory from Rudolf Firkusny, this set will more than suffice. For those who own earlier incarnations of the discs themselves, some selectivity must determine the need to purchase. There are no regrets anywhere.

—Gary Lemco

Rudolf Firkusny: Soloist and Partner =

Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 “Emperor”; Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24 “Spring”; Violin Sonata No. 7 in C Minor, Op. 30, No. 2; Violin Sonata No. 10 in G Major, Op. 96; Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13 “Pathtique”; Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2 “Moonlight”; Piano Sonata No. 21 in C Major, Op. 53 “Waldstein”;

Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15; Viola Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 120, No. 1; Viola Sonata No. 2 in E-flat Major, Op. 120, No. 2; Selected Piano Pieces; 4 Klavierstücke, Op. 119; CHOPIN: Piano Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58; DEBUSSY: Suite Bergamasque; Estampes; Children’s Corner Suite;

DVORAK: Piano Concerto in G Minor, Op. 33;

FRANCK: Violin Sonata in A Major;

JANACEK: Piano Sonata “I.X.1905”; On an Overgrown Path; In the Mists; Concertino for Piano, 2 Violins, Viola. Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon;

MOZART: Piano Sonata No. 14 in C Minor, K. 457; Violin Sonata in E-flat Major, K. 481; Fantasias

MARTINU: Piano Concerto No. 4;

MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition;

SCHUBERT: 4 Impromptus, D. 899;

SCHUMANN: Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17; Träumerei, Op. 15, No. 7

Musician Partners:

Violins – Nathan Milstein, Erica Morini, Tossy Spivakovsky, Samuel Lifschey, William Primrose/Viola
Clarinet – Anthony Gigliotti, clarinet/
Bassoon – Sol Schoenbach, bassoon/
Horn – Mason Jones, horn/
Hans Rosbaud cond. NY Philharmonic
William Steinberg cond. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Rafael Kubelik cond. Philharmonia Orchestra (Martinu); Cologne Radio-Symphony Orchesta (Dvorak)

Firkusny Soloist and Partner, Album Cover

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