As was reported at the end of last month, the Sony Classical release of Rudolf Firkušný: The Complete RCA and Columbia Album Collection is divided about equally between the two labels with nine CDs for each of them. What is a bit disconcerting is that much of the later RCA collection amounts to “return visits” to compositions that had been recorded for Columbia. This is particularly evident where the Czech composer Leoš Janáček is concerned. All of the Janáček selections that Firkušný had recorded for Columbia reappear on RCA. The good news is that, while Columbia recorded only the first Book of the short pieces in On an Overgrown Path (constituting ten of them), RCA recorded both books, making the remaining five pieces available to listeners that tend to like thoroughness. At the same recording session, RCA also included the haiku-like “Vzpomínka” (a recollection). Finally, there is an album that Firkušný recorded with Czech lyric soprano Gabriela Beňačková that included four of the voice-and-piano pieces that Janáček composed for more than 150 songs based on Moravian folk poems.
That latter album is the only vocal offering in the entire collection. It also includes two complete song cycles by Antonín Dvořák, the Opus 55 Cigánské melodie (Gypsy songs) and the Opus 73 collection V národním tónu (in folk tone), along with the seven songs that Bohuslav Martinů collected under the title Songs on One Page (which are also based on Moravian folk poetry). In addition, there are selections from two other Dvořák collections, the Opus 83 Písně milostné (love songs) collection of eight songs and three pieces from the ten songs in the Opus 99 Biblické písně (Biblical songs).
1942 photograph of Bohuslav Martinů at work at the piano (photograph unknown, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Czech Republic license)
Readers may recall from the account of the Columbia recordings that Martinů wrote several compositions for Firkušný, yet none of Martinů’s music shows up on any of the Columbia CDs. RCA compensated generously for this “sin of omission,” resulting in two complete CDs, one of solo piano music and one of the second, third, and fourth piano concertos. These are all performed with the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Libor Pešek. In addition, the RCA sessions focus on Dvořák’s two piano quintets (Opera 5 and 81), while Columbia preferred to record the two piano quartets (Opera 23 and 87). In addition, the Opus 33 piano concerto in G minor reappears, coupled this title with the Janáček concertino.
Taken as a whole, the RCA sessions focused almost entirely on Firkušný’s advocacy of the music of Czech composers. The one exception is a recording of César Franck’s “Variations symphonique,” which Firkušný performed with the Royal Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Claus Peter Flor. This is a perfectly engaging account of a composition that I have always felt deserves more attention than it gets. However, the producers of this CD decided to couple it with Flor’s interpretation of Franck’s D minor symphony, which has nothing to do with the piano and seems to have been inserted as “filler,” just as Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” provided “filler” for the Columbia recording of Firkušný’s performances of music by both Barber and Howard Hanson.
Nevertheless, in the context of the rich account of Czech music that occupied the RCA sessions, this is a collection to be enjoyed for its assets, which definitely outweigh the liabilities!