Rudolph Firkusny is the preeminent Czech pianist of the 20th century. Throughout his musical career, Firkusny has promoted Czech music of all periods. According to the arts, by age four he knew he would go into music. He tinkered on the home piano, enjoying the tones, and then took lessons for half a year to learn a few basics in music. According to Firkusny, he “just sat at the piano and played whatever came to my mind, party what I heard and partly what was my own inspiration or improvisation.”
The primary influence on the pianist was his study and friendship with the greatest 20th century Czech master, Leos Janack, with whom he began studying theory and composition at age five. He studied piano with a local music school piano teacher at the same time. Firkusny reported that his teacher required an original composition for each session from him. “Since age 10,” reported Firkusny, “I’ve memorized music. I don’t see the music; I hear it. It’s just there.” Together, they reviewed what he had written and he was shown why the child had written sections a certain way and how they could have been written differently. By age fourteen, he was sent to a conservatory to study harmony and counterpoint.
Firkusny plays the Concertino, the Capriccio for left hand and orchestra, the sonata, Variations, and more. The Dvorak Concerto has toured everywhere with Firkusny. He has also recorded Dvorak’s Mazurkas and Humoresques, and gives beautiful performances of the A major Suite.
Firkusny has more than enough power in his well schooled hands, and his playing always unrolls fluidly and logically in large-scale forms. His Beethoven is well balanced, not a Teutonic Beethoven but Slavic, and his Schubert readings are well esteemed interpretations. His Schubert Sonatas in A minor and D 784 are filled with beautiful impressionistic tints. His rendering of the smaller Brahms pieces alternates between light and dark.
His playing of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is among the most impressive of his recordings. Every rest and line is objectively etched. His Chopin evolved into an intimate interpretation. However, in spite of playing a great number of concerts, said the artist, he continued to need to study and learn new repertory. Firkusny liked to read, especially books about musicians, like the Mozart letters which contain direct references to and ideas about his own music and that of his contemporaries. He stated that while there is no doubt about the impressiveness of virtuoso display, if that is all the pianist has to give, then there is something missing in the performance. The depth and breadth of the whole person, he said, are necessary for interpreting any composition.
Technique is usually considered in terms of speed and accuracy of playing; it is also usually associated with pieces of music such as Listz’s etudes, Chopin’s etudes, or Rachmaninoff’s concerti. According to Firkusny, a pianist needs as much technique to play a soft note in a Mozart andante as needed for some stormy passage in a Listz rhapsody. Technique is a combination of many factors—control, pedaling, touch, and phrasing. To play difficult pieces, one needs to have the physical training for the performance and a knowledge of basics that are taken for granted, having been trained from early years.
But, said Firkusny, it is the artists that makes the music come alive. Music lives not necessarily by a technically perfect performance, but one in which the pianist breathes new life into it. “Beethoven wrote his music to be played and heard; if you want a perfect idea of his music,” said Firkusny, “You can study the score, play it in your imagination, and hear the most fantastic performance you could ever dream of, but it is still a printed score. When the pianist breathes life into it, it is then that you feel the strength and the beauty of the composition.”
“When I work with my students, I try very hard to help each one develop his or her own individuality, especially in expression of the music. I can, of course, tell the student when something is wrong with the basics, but I don’t spend any time improving the fundamentals because it is supposed to be an advanced class. We work primarily with interpretations. Nor do I pay attention to method. I don’t care how they play as long as they express what they want to express. Some play better with straight fingers, others play better with curved fingers. It’s the result that counts. If a sound comes out poorly, then I tell them that we will have to do something about hand stance, or wrists, or arms. Otherwise, I let them alone. I don’t believe in methods. Everyone’s hands are different and must be worked differently. What I do with my fingers might be impossibly for someone else. And what someone else may do might be impossible for me. The old systems that forced everyone into the same mold are gone, because there are so many teachers to choose from whose methods are more free and advanced. Of course we still hear of the Russian school or the French school, which have their peculiar traditions, but their traditions followed the line of their music more than anything else. The Russian school is more robust because the music of Rachmaninoff demands a powerful kind of expression, more on the heavy side. French music, on the other hand, is light and airy; it is very elegant and clean but a bit tempered like the works of Couperin, Rameau, Saint-Saens, Debussy, and Ravel; it calls for a lighter touch.
“When I studied under Kurz, I used a combination of the Leschetizky method, which was all fingers, and another method which emphasized body movement. I learned to use the body as an adjunct to the fingers, and I’ll say this for the method. I was never tired; I could play seven or eight hours without becoming weary because I always felt somewhat loose at the keyboard. When I learn a new piece, most of my learning is at the piano, playing a piece until I know it. Sometimes it takes three days, sometimes a week, and sometimes a month. It all depends on how rapidly I can establish the connection between the parts and finalize the structure. I never try to force it. The knowledge of the music should come gradually and become such a part of you that you know it almost automatically.
Firkusny recommended practicing in a slower tempo for two reasons. The first is to overcome any bad habits in playing. The second is for concentrating more on the function of the fingers and on the quality of tone than can be achieved at a faster pace. It is better, he reported, to back off from playing rapidly so as better to control the dynamics of the piece.