Sunday, October 27, 2019

Sony Classical Releases Firkušný Anthology

The Czech-born naturalized American pianist Rudolf Firkušný died at the age of 82 on July 19, 1994, meaning that this past summer marked the 25th anniversary of his passing. Sony Classical chose to mark that occasion with the release of Rudolf Firkušný: The Complete RCA and Columbia Album Collection. This consists of eighteen CDs that collect recording sessions that took place between 1949 and 1993.

Firkušný was, in many respects, an “old school” pianist. He studied with both Alfred Cortot and Artur Schnabel. Ironically, his earliest studies were in composition putting him in touch with the relatively traditional Josef Suk but also the less conventional Leoš Janáček. As a result, his repertoire had a special place for Czech composers; and his recording commitments made a special place for not only Janáček but also Bohuslav Martinů, who wrote several compositions for him.

The Sony Classical release is very much a “half and half” affair. Nine discs each are allotted to Columbia and RCA, roughly in that order (roughly because there was some overlap between the end of the Columbia sessions and the beginning of the RCA ones). To make my account of Firkušný a bit more “digestible,” I shall deal with the two labels in two separate pieces, beginning, chronologically, with the Columbia sides.

That said, it is worth noting that the earliest sessions (the ones in 1949) allowed Firkušný to introduce himself to discophiles with a bold opening. The very first session, on February 3, was devoted to the first and last of the three movements of Robert Schumann’s Opus 17 fantasia in C major. That session also include “Träumerei” (dreaming), the seventh piece in Schumann’s Opus 15 Kinderszenen (scenes from childhood) collection. (I find myself imagining that, after the workout of Opus 17, Firkušný had to play something to calm himself down a bit.) The remainder of Opus 17 was not recorded until June 20.

My impression with this “first taste” registered Firkušný as a disciplined pianist with solid attention to technical details. Nevertheless, he made sure that the depth of his technical understanding did not undermine the expressiveness of the music itself. That can be quite a balancing act when a composer like Schumann is concerned; but, regardless of the number of my past listening experiences, his account of Opus 17 definitely seized and held my attention. Thus, I was well disposed to listen to the CD of the two sets of four impromptus, D. 899 and D. 935, by Franz Schubert, not to mention Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 58 (third) piano sonata in B minor, which has a tendency to try my patience!

Curiously, that Chopin sonata shares a CD with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The sonata selection is K. 457 in C minor, preceded, as is often the case, by the K. 475 C minor fantasia. The CD also includes Maximilian Stadler’s completion of the K. 396 fantasia in C minor, which Mozart never finished.

Firkušný approaches Mozart with a clear sense that he is playing a modern grand piano. Nevertheless, he knows exactly how to manage dynamics and phrasing (not to mention the damper pedal) in such a way that every phrase registers with just the right combination of expressiveness and considered technique. This results in an account of K. 475 that suggests that it may have emerged from spontaneous improvisation but still makes it a point of proper interpretation to honor the letter of the text.

The cover of Firkušný’s Janáček album for Columbia (from the Discogs Web page for the vinyl version of this recording)

However, if there is a bias in this collection, it favors Czech composition. There is an entire CD of Janáček’s piano music, including the discovery (for me at least) of a concertino scored for piano, two violins, viola, clarinet, horn, and bassoon. Unless I am mistaken, all of the other instrumental parts were played by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, perhaps by virtue of the relationship that the orchestra had with Columbia.

In addition there are three CDs of music by Antonín Dvořák, two of which involve the members of the Juilliard String Quartet. Those performances account for the two piano quartets (Opus 23 in D major and Opus 87 in E-flat major), the Opus 81 (second) piano quintet, and the Opus 47 set of bagatelles scored for two violins, cello, and harmonium. The remaining CD offers the Opus 33 piano concerto in G minor, performed with George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra.

Finally, it is important to note that an entire CD in this collection has been devoted to two twentieth-century American composers: Samuel Barber (his Opus 20 “Excursions”) and Howard Hanson (his Opus 36 concerto in G major). Unless I am mistaken, Firkušný gave the premiere performances of both of those pieces, meaning that the recording sessions were follow-ups to those premieres. Nevertheless, those two pieces do not go very far in filling up a CD.

As a result, the opening track is a performance of Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” The recording session took place on November 7, 1950 with William Strickland conducting the Dumbarton Oaks Chamber Orchestra accompanying soprano Eleanor Steber. Steber had sung the premiere performance in 1948 with Serge Koussevitzky conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I have to confess that, while many are more likely to associate Leontyne Price with this composition, I much prefer Steber for both her diction and her phonetics. So, if this collection has to include a track that has nothing to do with Firkušný, I am very glad that it happened to be this one!

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