“For me there is only one piano — Steinway, my indispensable companion in making music.”
Photo: Steve J. Sherman, Carnegie Hall 1987
Mr. Rudolf Firkušný (1912-1994) was born in Napajedla, Moravia. From the age of 5, he studied with pianist Leoš Janáček. "It was not piano but music that I studied with him," he said. "I composed also. It was a great experience."
He went on to study piano with Vilém Kurz and composition with Josef Suk, Dvořák's son-in-law, at the Prague Academy of Music. He pursued piano studies abroad, traveling to France to work with Alfred Cortot and to Germany and Italy to work with Artur Schnabel. "You do not need a teacher anymore, only the public," Cortot told him after conducting a Paris concert in which Mr. Firkušný was the soloist.
Imprudently billed as "the greatest pianist Czechoslovakia has ever produced," Mr. Firkušný made his American debut in 1938, at New York’s very own Town Hall. At first, his reviews were modest, leaving New York Times reporter Noel Straus skeptical about Firkušný’s talent: "It seemed difficult to believe that his interpretative gifts, meager as they proved, or even his technical abilities, were superior to those of Dussek, Moscheles, Dreyschock or Stradal, to mention the first Czech pianists who come to mind."
But a mere three years later , Straus found "gain on the interpretive side as well as in technical virtuosity," which helped place Mr. Firkušný "well to the front among the younger pianists of the day." Subsequent reviews contained uniform praise for Mr. Firkušný's artistry. "Rudolf Firkušný comes with a guaranteed-to-please label, money back if not satisfied," Harold C. Schonberg summed up in 1971 for The Times.
Mr. Firkušný settled in New York just after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. With the Communist takeover in 1948, he abandoned plans to return to his homeland and became an American citizen. A fierce advocate of democracy, he returned only to visit family and friends. He and his wife, Tatiana, were married there in 1965, and he maintained close ties with the nation's first president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk.
In making music, Mr. Firkušný once said: "I have never considered myself the most important man. That is the composer." He gave up serious composition early on but continued to cultivate relationships with composers, American as well as Czech, throughout his career. He formed a special friendship with Bohuslav Martinů, and brought several of his composed works to life. He played Martinů's Second Piano Concerto on his return to Prague in 1990.
Mr. Firkušný performed all over the United States as well as in Europe and Japan. He was a frequent soloist with the New York Philharmonic and other major American orchestras and a favorite collaborator of George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. He was a regular fixture at the Mostly Mozart festival and in other series in New York and a valued chamber musician. He taught at the Juilliard School.
He made many excellent recordings, notably his third version of the Dvořák Piano Concerto, with Václav Neumann and the Czech Philharmonic; a superb disk of Janáček solo works, and a collection of Czech songs with Gabriela Benáčková, all on RCA Victor.
"If I want to play, I have to play damn well, otherwise I might as well close up shop," the perennially self-effacing pianist said. He continued to please audiences and critics until losing his battle against cancer in July 1994.