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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    

Rudolf FRIML (1879-1972)
Friml plays Friml

Rose Marie
Allah’s Holiday
The Firefly
Improvisation on Donkey Serenade
Prague Improvisation
Egyptian Dance
L’Amour Coquette
Rhapsodic Improvisation
Zavis’s Songs Op 1

Rudolf Friml, piano
Ivo Zidek, tenor (Zavis’s Songs only)
Recorded: Studio Mozarteum, Prague 28 September 1964
SUPRAPHON SU 3267-2 911 [60’51] midprice
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Friml had an active and varied career. A pupil of Dvořák at fourteen at the Prague Conservatoire he was employed by the National Theatre as a vocal coach at the outrageous age of eighteen. He also accompanied his contemporary, the violinist Jan Kubelik, a fellow student, for nine years until 1906 when Friml emigrated to America and began the career for which he is best remembered, as an operetta composer of the highest distinction. Nearly sixty years after he first settled in America Friml returned to the city of his birth to give a gala concert at Lucerna Hall and to record this album of melodies and improvisations for Supraphon. As a pendant his Op 1, Zavis’s Songs, was recorded, the tenor being that stalwart of the Supraphon operatic catalogue, Ivo Zidek. The tenor’s tactful but honest recollections are included in the booklet and he notes that when confronted by his first opus the now 85 year old composer grew "a little fidgety" and during their preliminary rehearsal more or less improvised his way through the piano part. Though he had tightened up for the recording it seems only to have been the skill of the recording engineers in particular that managed to smooth the session, Zidek himself singling out Franta Burda for particular praise. One suspects multiple takes, considerable lengths of tape, scissors and a lot of sellotape went into the production of the finished article.

The elderly composer played with brio and sometimes panache but it’s idle to pretend that his technique had emerged as miraculously unscathed as had that of, say, Saint-Saens many years earlier. Friml’s pianism teems with wrong notes, can be splashy and inaccurate and often rhythmically somewhat stilted – but, despite all this, never remotely enough to impede enjoyment or pleasure at the sound of the composer revisiting his youthful triumphs with such affectionate engagement. He is, for example, sprightfully lively in the melodies from Rose Marie, apparently impervious to the lorry load of spilled notes trailing in his wake. He can no longer send a glistening treble run up the scale but he can convey much of the easy charm and lyrical largesse of his music – such avuncular insouciance. In Allah’s Holiday, the cod Easternisms are dispatched with rude roulades of brio, whereas the Straussisms of The Firefly, one of his most famous melodies, are visited by furtive rubatos and a deliciously syncopated middle section, flashy and conclusive. The Improvisations were a good medium for Friml, especially in the light of his failing memory, giving rein to his flair for a good tune, unconstrained by too much formality of structure and graced by his lyric ease. The Prague Improvisation is affectionate – a little arthritic rhythmically perhaps - and full of wrong notes, left and right hand, but with its jaunty central section it is an appropriate approximation of a rather cosmopolitan Slavonic Dance. Who cares if it’s so splashy when the feeling is so right?

Zidek and Friml did eventual justice to those Op 1 Songs with their ardour and simplicity. The second of the cycle of five, For You, is deliciously expressive whilst the last quotes Dvořák, Friml’s teacher, an act of homage that brings the little cycle, pliant, ardent, delicate, to an affectionate conclusion. Zidek himself sings with his accustomed and sovereign command – consonants glistening, strong but sensitively shaped lines – and is an admirable exponent of Friml’s brand of youthful innocence.

First released in 1965, the CD is graced by a Mucha portrait from the first decade of the century, and is a delightful and charming souvenir of one of the Czech lands’ most successful exports.

Jonathan Woolf


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