Rudolf Firkusny, an Elegant and Patrician Pianist, Is Dead at 82
The cause was cancer, said his press agent, Constance Shuman.
a long career, Mr. Firkusny was a favorite of audiences, piano
connoisseurs and Czech-music specialists alike. He achieved still wider
recognition in his late years in unexpected ways. In 1990, at 78, he
appeared on a basketball court in concert dress, as a foil to David
Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs in a popular television commercial
for Nike sneakers. "Music needs all kinds of encouragement," Mr.
Firkusny said at the time.
Honored in His Homeland
Shortly afterward, he made a triumphant return to Czechoslovakia, as the country was then still called. Although he had not performed there for 44 years because of his staunch opposition to Communist control, he was recognized for his lifelong contributions to Czech music and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Charles University in Prague.
He said in an address on that occasion that a musical interpreter, like a philosopher, is engaged in an eternal search for the meaning of human existence. "If, throughout my life, I had not been asking myself exactly those questions over the scores," he added, "I would feel today that my life has been wasted by piano playing which was basically useless." He was greeted on that visit by President Vaclav Havel.
Mr. Firkusny's visibility grew in recent years even without particular action on his part. Although he was always a versatile artist and became especially involved with Mozart and Beethoven, his great specialty was the music of his compatriots, Dvorak, Smetana, Janacek and Martinu. Long condescended to as quaint nationalists, these composers have come into their own of late, and Mr. Firkusny's contribution has finally been recognized at its full value.
He played a major hand in the 1993 Bard Music Festival in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., which centered on Dvorak. He gave a Janacek recital in the composer's hometown of Brno in October. His last performance was a recital in January in Covington, Ga.
Mr. Firkusny was born on Feb. 11, 1912, in Napajedla, Moravia. For 10 years, from the age of 5, he studied with Leos Janacek. "It was not piano but music that I studied with him," he said. "I composed also. It was a great experience."
He went on to study piano with Vilem Kurz and composition with Josef Suk, Dvorak's son-in-law, at the Prague Academy of Music. He pursued piano studies abroad, traveling to France to work with Alfred Cortot and to Germany and Italy to work with Artur Schnabel. "You do not need a teacher anymore, only the public," Cortot told him after conducting a Paris concert in which Mr. Firkusny was the soloist.
Imprudently billed as "the greatest pianist Czechoslovakia has ever produced," Mr. Firkusny made his American debut in 1938, at Town Hall in New York. In a review in The New York Times, Noel Straus remained skeptical beneath faint praise: "It seemed difficult to believe that his interpretative gifts, meager as they proved, or even his technical abilities, were superior to those of Dussek, Moscheles, Dreyschock or Stradal, to mention the first Czech pianists who come to mind."
But three years later in Town Hall,
Straus found a "gain on the interpretive side as well as in technical
virtuosity," which helped place Mr. Firkusny "well to the front among
the younger pianists of the day." Subsequent New York reviews were
remarkable, almost tedious, in their uniformity of praise for Mr.
Firkusny's artistry. "Rudolf Firkusny comes with a guaranteed-to-please
label, money back if not satisfied," Harold C. Schonberg summed up once
and for all in 1971 in The Times.
Became American Citizen
Mr. Firkusny settled in New York in 1940, after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. With the Communist takeover in 1948, he abandoned plans to return to his homeland and became an American citizen. A fierce advocate of democracy, he returned to Czechoslovakia only to visit family and friends. He and his wife, Tatiana, were married there in 1960, and he maintained close ties with the family of the nation's first president, Tomas Masaryk.
In making music, Mr. Firkusny once said: "I have never considered myself the most important man. That is the composer." He gave up serious composition early but continued to cultivate relationships with composers, American as well as Czech, throughout his career. He formed a special friendship with Bohuslav Martinu, and brought several of his works to life. He played Martinu's Second Piano Concerto on his return to Prague in 1990.
Mr. Firkusny performed all over the United States as well as in Europe and Japan. He was a frequent soloist with the New York Philharmonic and other major American orchestras and a favorite collaborator of George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. He was a regular fixture at the Mostly Mozart festival and in other series in New York and a valued chamber musician. He taught at the Juilliard School.
He made many excellent recordings, notably his third version of the Dvorak Piano Concerto, with Vaclav Neumann and the Czech Philharmonic; a superb disk of Janacek solo works, and a collection of Czech songs with Gabriela Benackova, all on RCA Victor. Awaiting release from RCA are Martinu's Second, Third and Fourth Piano Concertos.
"If I want to play, I have to play damn well, otherwise I might as well close up shop," the perennially self-effacing pianist said two decades ago. He continued to please audiences and critics at least through the Bard Festival last year and closed up shop only in recent months, when he was physically unable to carry on.In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Veronique Callegari of Manhattan; a son, Igor, of Boston, and two grandchildren.
This interview was recorded in Chicago on November 2,
1990. Portions (along with recordings) were
broadcast on WNIB the following year and in 1992, 1994 and 1997.
transcription was made and posted on this website early in 2009.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Award-winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.