Rudolf Firkusny, piano = SCHUBERT: Three Pieces, D. 946; MARTINU: Fantasia et Toccata; MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition; CHOPIN: Mazurka , Op. 63, No. 3; SMETANA: Furiant; Concert Etude – BBC Legends

by | Jul 7, 2008 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Rudolf Firkusny, piano = SCHUBERT: Three Pieces, D. 946; MARTINU: Fantasia et Toccata; MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition; CHOPIN: Mazurka , Op. 63, No. 3; SMETANA: Furiant; Concert Etude

BBC Legends BBCL 4238-2, 75:54 [Distr. by Koch] ****:

The Queen Elizabeth Hall, London recital 21 February 1980 by esteemed Czech virtuoso Rudolf Firkusny (1912-1994) grants us some delights previously unavailable in the Firkusny record catalogue, including the 1940 Fantasia et Toccata by his good friend Bohuslav Martinu, composed for Firkusny in 1940. While Firkusny made a fine commercial inscription of Schubert’s Eight Impromptus for CBS (ML 4527), it has yet to be transferred to the CD medium. So the appearance of the Drei Klavierstuecke, D. 946–always refreshing, since no two pianists play the same edition of the works–reveals the quick, protean lyricism of Firkusny’s technique.  Typically, there are moments when he plays too fast; then, he counters the impulse with a pearly play and luftpausen that betray his Schnabel coaching. He plays the third of the Schubert pieces presto, the agogic accents flying through the air like chaff cut by the thresher’s flail. The last page twirls, gallops, and sails, somehow without breaking all the piano’s strings.

Martinu’s moody Fantasia et Toccata is an ambitious piece (13 minutes) in a modally-adjusted Bach idiom, often requiring Firkusny to apply clarion and percussive effects into its thickly wrought matrix. Coloristic and tempestuous, the Fantasia rumbles, spits, and murmurs, often at once. The left hand moves constantly, a toccata unto itself. Mercurial and passionate, the last pages of the Fantasia call forth a series of brilliant brush strokes from Firkusny’s dizzying palette. Firkusny takes the ensuing Toccata attaca, as one huge hurtling gulp.  At several junctures, we think we are hearing moments from Prokofiev’s late sonatas. The polished vocalism of the glissandi and parlando passages remind us that Firkusny could make this most percussive instrument sing with the best. At the last, jabbed chord, the audience spasmodically utters cries of approbation.

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was a Firkusny staple, a natural vehicle for his compendium of keyboard effects and a jolly fine ride. His torrential realization of the Gnomus section warrants our attention. The close miking catches every intake of Firkusny’s breath. The second appearance of the Promenade, musing wistfully, leads to the tender troubadour’s song outside The Old Castle. If the Tuileries prove skittishly scherzando, the Bydlo oxcart could crush ten men under its weight, all of Mother Russia under the yoke. A gentle carillon Promenade moves us to the ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, all pecks and pokes that dissolve into a shimmering alla musette. The two Jews discuss fate and Karl Marx, the repeated notes fluttering Schmuyle’s afflicted plaint. The Promenade itself a concert etude segues into the hectic, whirling Limoges market prior to the suite of Dantesque visions. Shotgun chords open the Catacombs. Finally, a pilgrim’s cry emerges from the black bells of Death. The Dead Language combines the Promenade and the Dies Irae effectively. Baba Yaga fumes and rages, a hexentanz of staggering firepower.  Firkusny scales the Witch’s heights only to realize an even more imposing apotheosis at The Great Gate of Kiev, the pilgrims chanting their lauds as the grand bells ring out for Russian Easter. If Firkusny wanted to be Vladimir Horowitz, he could be.

The Chopin and Smetana offerings play as encores. The Op. 63 Mazurka is the pearl of the set of three–what Cortot called an exquisite, aristocratic dream–Firkusny’s touch is a mite pesant, but the natural lilt and grace of the shifting accents retain their innate, mesmeric charm. The titanic Furiant of Smetana is the same that opened Firkusny’s famed Capitol LP of Czech Dances and Polkas. Knotty and virtuosic, it thunders and relents and develops a syncopated figure, a noble moment of Breughel in the salon. I doubt if anyone not knowing the Concert Etude we hear was by Smetana would name him as the composer. Moszkowski, we might venture, although a bit frenetic for that distinguished soul. This piece lifts up the rafters, and not a single member of this audience was sitting at the last note.

— Gary Lemco


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