Remembering Rudolf Firkušny, Pianist of Refinement and Warmth

Saturday, February 11, 2012 - 12:00 AM

It is neither fair nor sufficient to describe a musician’s artistry in a single word. And yet, when I hear recordings by pianist Rudolf Firkušny, was born on February 11, 1912, the word that comes to mind every time is “warmth.” Not a gushy, sloppy, sentimental warmth, but something deep and rich. Is it just a quality of his playing, or a reflection of the man?

“My father grew up in great poverty and great privilege,” said his daughter, Véronique Firkušny. Born in Moravia, the youngest of three children, Firkušny was just three years old when his father died, leaving a young widow with mouths to feed and few means to do so in a region struck by the first World War. “His mother was scrambling, and he found his way to the piano as a way of entertaining himself," his daughter added. "He always said that the piano was his greatest toy.”

The piano was also the source of the privileged part of his youth. He came to the attention of Leoš Janáček when he was just five or six years old, and was musically nurtured by the old man. He later studied composition with Joseph Suk, and also came under the wing of Tomáš Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia. He began performing professionally in the 1920s.

In the late 1930s, after the Nazis had annexed Czechoslovakia, Firkušny met with a German official who proffered an invitation to concertize in Germany and even perform for Hitler. Firkušny replied, “I will be happy to play in any tiny hole anywhere in Czechoslovakia, but I will not set foot in Germany while the occupation lasts.” Told that the invitation, if refused, would become an order, Firkušny knew he had to leave. It took him eight months to get from Prague to Paris, through Spain and Portugal, before he arrived in New York, where he was embraced by the Czech community here.

He went back to his homeland for the Prague Spring Festival of 1946, and performed the world premiere of Martinů’s Piano Concerto No. 2. But cautioned not to repatriate, he returned to New York just before the Iron Curtain went up. He didn’t step foot on Czech soil again until the Velvet Revolution and the end of Communist rule.

At the 1990 Prague Spring Festival, Firkušny again played the Martinů Piano Concerto No. 2. His manager, Larry Tucker, now an official with the Milwaukee Symphony, was there. "It was like a rock star coming home," he said. "We tried to get backstage afterward, and it was just impossible.”

“My father was profoundly moved,” his daughter Véronique says of that homecoming, ”especially by the fact that he was embraced not only by people of his own generation, but by people of the subsequent generations whom he really thought wouldn’t even know who he was.”

Firkušny taught at Juilliard, a few students each term. Pianist Sara Davis Buechner was one of them. "He was one of the most impressive pianists I had ever heard. Onstage he looked like a movie star, so handsome and poised. Of the many times I heard him in concert – about 50 times or so – the sound of the piano was so lovely when he played, a very beautiful, warm tone. There was great authority to his playing, and I came away from those concerts thinking I’d never hear those pieces played better in my entire lifetime. Years after I’d studied with him, I was reflecting, and thinking I never heard this man play a single wrong note in concert. But you took that for granted. It was the music that came out.”

There are lots of Firkušny performances on YouTube, but there’s an odd one in the bunch, and it’s surely the Firkušny performance seen by the largest audience. Former manager Larry Tucker tells the story: “In the early ‘90s we were trying to keep him somewhat contemporary. Rudolf’s press agent got a call from Nike, the shoe maker. They wanted to do a commercial with him and David Robinson, the San Antonio Spurs center, who was an amateur pianist. Rudolf, I don’t think, had ever even seen a basketball game.” But he did the commercial, and residuals for it were coming in even after Firkušny’s death in 1994.

Does the warmth you hear in Firkušny’s performances reflect the man? His daughter, Véronique, would surely agree. “I had a lifelong dream of singing in the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus, and he personally came to accompany my audition," she recalled. "I got in! And he came to every single performance that he was in town for, and often he went standing room.”

“He didn’t have a stage persona,” said Tucker. “He was a real person. He wasn’t considered a superstar because he didn’t want to be. And he never said a bad word about any other pianist.”

This spring, there will be a conference in Břno, Czech Republic, to celebrate the Firkušny centennial. His former students and colleagues will gather to remember his teaching and performing.

Rudolf Firkušny was a champion of the composers of his homeland – Dvořák, of course, and of Janáček and Martinů, whom he knew personally. He became an exile, rather than recognize two governments who occupied his country. He was a devoted family man.

It seems to me that he brought those same qualities to his music-making. He had a saying, "The composer, he is the main man.” His playing is lucid, rich, beautiful and full of integrity to the composer. And always, somehow, filled with warmth. I don’t think that quality in his playing is a coincidence at all. I think it’s who he was.

Photo Credit: Steve J. Sherman

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Comments [7]

Lenka Hanackova from Napajedla, The Czech Republic

I met Rudolf Firkusny in 1990 for the first time when he visited his native town Napajedla in the Czech Republic. He was a great person, a great pianist. We still keep his memory alive. The Festival Honor to Rudolf Firkusny has been established, his name is proudly carried by Primary Music School of Rudolf Firkusny Napajedla.

Feb. 26 2012 04:19 AM
Diane Saldick from New York, NY

It was a privilege to know Rudolf Firkusny as pianist and friend during our many years together at Columbia Artists. He continues to epitomize artistic integrity and human kindness.

Diane Saldick

Feb. 13 2012 10:11 AM
Ann Kennedy from western new york

I was introduced to Mr. Firkusny by Janet and Martin Bookspan. He was so supportive of me as a singer. I enjoyed going to his concerts immensely and was struck by his humility. His wife was a tremendous help to me when I auditioned for The Montreal Competition for Voice. They were both lovely, opening their home to me and lending me their copy of their Rusalka recording. I hope everyone will play his recordings today!

Feb. 13 2012 09:26 AM
Suelain Moy from New York City

I can only imagine the moonlight toasts and candelight picnics celebrating the glorious music and humble circumstances of Rudolf Firkusny's birth 100 years ago. Although his talents were prodigious, I remember him as elegant, kind, and perceptive in person. He was playful and sunny with children and young people. Maybe that's why I feel young when I hear his music. It's no wonder that his performances reflect that same elegance and joy.

Feb. 11 2012 10:23 PM
Ken Noda from New York, NY

I had the good fortune to study with Mr. Firkusny from ages 16 to 20. What a supremely elegant artist he was! Arriving at his pristine apartment, I always felt as if entering the home of an aristocratic family. His wife Tatiana was a formidable beauty and would greet me at the door with regal warmth; his children Veronique and Igor would be in another room playing. She would then lead me to his piano studio where the great man would be smoking his pipe; I particularly remember his debonair figure set against the afternoon light as he would listen intently, almost musing upon what he'd be hearing whether it was good or bad. He taught me so much about the Viennese classics: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert - but not in a rigid way, surprisingly liberal and open-minded as he was. The lessons were almost experimental at times and there were never any "shoulds" or "should nots". I will always remember the freedom he gave me as a student, and his unforced style of teaching has been a constant influence on my coachings with young singers at the Met.

Feb. 11 2012 08:13 PM
nina deutsch from Leonia,nj

Rudolf Firkusny , my piano teacher at the Aspen school of music, gave me private lessons for years in NYC. He brought me into his own management, the Bichurin Management in 1974. Not only was he a great virtuoso and interpreter, he was a personal friend of great brilliasnce and compassion.
His legacy to his students and to me included his deep concern for moral values, his love of Peace and Friendship.. I became a pioneer in USA- China cultural relations in 1982 when I performed all american music and had a music exchange on stage for the first time in the history of the People's Republic of China. I am privileged to have studied with the greatest teachers of the century, especially the greatest pianist, Mr. Firkusny. When I sustained massive injuries in the car accident of 1981,
Mr. Firkusny wrote a letter to support me in my court case and suggested that I become a pop pianist and entertainer." Never have a breakdown about not being a great virtuoso any more ! your beautiful face is still intact"

Feb. 11 2012 06:54 PM
Richard Pohl from Brno, Czech Republic

True national hero... a supreme Master of his art. We are so proud we will be able to invite his musical descendants at our Janacek Academy of Music and Performing Arts this April...

Feb. 11 2012 11:58 AM

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