Firkušný was born in Napajedla, Moravia on 11 February
1912. From 1917 to 1927 he studied with Leoš Janáček. Further
studies at the Prague Academy of Music were with Vilem Kurz (who
famously edited the Dvořák piano concerto) and Josef Suk.
His friendship with Janáček was the entrée to meeting President
Masaryk who financially supported the young pianist through his
years of study in Prague and beyond. His first recital was in
Prague at the age of 8. He was playing Mozart's Coronation Concerto
at 10. As the 1920s and 1930s unfolded he performed throughout
Europe. His American debut came in 1938 in New York. Firkušný
showed special loyalty to the works of Kvapil, Moyzes and Borkovec.
Martinů’s music was close to his heart. Firkušný and Martinů
first met in Paris in 1931 where their friendship was consiolidated
through the flight from the Nazis to their refugee arrival in
New York. It was 44 years and the departure of communism before
Firkušný would perform in his homeland again. He played Martinů's
Second Piano Concerto at the Prague Spring Music Festival on his
return in 1990.
present set makes for a very welcome return to the catalogue.
Few if any have greater authority than Firkušný in this
music which, on one disc, addresses the principal works for solo
piano and on the other has three concertos either written for
or premiered by him.
Second Piano Concerto is spry and athletic sporting apparel
from Martinů's then heroes - Debussy and Ravel. The frictionless,
silvery grace of the poco andante gives way to a flood of machine
gun motoric neo-classical pianola pattering from soloist and orchestra
something of the type to be found in Stravinsky's Concerto for
piano and woodwind. This works because Martinů opens up the
dehydrated pores with Czech national yearning motifs (as in tr.3
4.30). The Leichner sounds a mite oxygen depleted by the side
of Firkušný's two recordings with Bĕlohlávek on Supraphon
SU-1988-2 031 and Firkušný's final recording on this set.
is more modern than you might have expected from Martinů.
The recently reissued 1968 Palenicek recording on bargain price
Apex outdoes the comparatively airless and brittle recording by
Klara Havlikova on Campion RRCD1321 (coupled with the Fifth Concerto
and the Harpsichord Concerto). In fact it runs the Firkušný
pretty close as well. Firkušný, for all his years, produces
a vital recording eager to put across the many unusual angles
to this work. Leichner and Bĕlohlávek in their complete
Supraphon set of the piano concertos do not have quite the convulsive
spit and fire of Palenicek (Apex 0927 49822 2) or Firkušný (RCA-BMG).
When Martinů heard Firkušný play this concerto in 1957 he
said the piece "expressed a neverending quest for truth and the
meaning of life as well as a tribute to music, musician's sanctuary,
his power and weapon."
big Third Concerto goes well in Leichner's and Bĕlohlávek's
hands and they make more of the Brahms reminiscences than Firkušný
and Pešek. There is nothing amiss with the Firkušný reading
but it is just that things go with a noticeably more natural flow.
The supernatural eerie-ness of the second movement is well caught
as in the finale is the collision between the neo-classical angularity,
the airy nationalistic buoyancy of the Fourth Symphony and the
crowded field of Brahmsian (third and fourth symphonies) and Beethovenian
solo piano music disc includes the irritable baroquery of the
Ritournelles (classic Parisian years material) -
hectic, heartless motoric brevities played for all they are worth.
The Fantaisie and Toccata is resplendent with verve
and effervescence characteristic of Martinů’s 1940s zenith.
This is not quite up to the wonderful Toccata e Due Canzoni
standard (try the Zdenek Hnat version on a Supraphon LP -
long in need of reissue). The Piano Sonata is late Martinů
written within five years of his death. It is wild, angular and
awkward - not at all the work of a tired old man. This has more
of the rebellious spirit of 1920s Cowell, Ornstein and Ruggles
about it than anything else. Finally the nine Etudes and
Polkas from 1945 in Firkušný's practised hands
encompass the full range from hectic mitrailleuse impacts to rural
idyll to hayseed barn-dance with the straw crunching beneath your
Artistes + Répertoires series has come in for a real drubbing
from some of the site's critics. Some of them deprecate the cardboard
double-fold sleeve and others rail against the brevity of the
notes. The collage and graffiti style design is odd-ball, I'll
grant you and some of it is too difficult to read because of idiosyncratic
design choices but why get on your high horses? Until this set
(a bargain price twofer) came along these two discs had been long
deleted. I for one am simply delighted to see these fine performances
returning to the catalogue at a price that is far more accessible
to the general collector and to students than the original releases
ever were. We too easily forget issues of social inclusion and
if part of the cost of getting these discs in circulation at bargain
basement prices is losing the highly detailed notes then I can
live with that. On top of which what is the problem with card
sleeves? That is what we had for LPs and they can take up less
space than jewel boxes - CD for CD. The other dimension (leaving
aside the disc itself) is ecological. Ultimately cardboard will
degrade more easily than a plastic jewel box. When the next major
audio carrier comes along, and after the second-hand market has
been exhausted, we need to know that as much as possible of those
sets discarded in landfill in 2050 along with useless LPs will
bio-degrade rather than leave humanity with a plastic legacy.
I just wish this had been a three CD set and then we could have
added the Starker/Firkušný versions of the three cello
sonatas on RCA 09026 61220 2).
some critics are sharpening their sabres or choosing their most
beloved cudgel with which to belabour BMG the rest of you with
any interest in Martinů should snap up this outstanding bargain.
Not so very long ago, when first issued, these two discs were
at premium price. Then they disappeared under the deleter's axe.
Now you can again hear
these radiant performances by one of Martinů's constant champions
and closest confidantes. Do listen to this music nurtured in sunlight
and dewy with nostalgic nationalism. The music's the thing!