Prague Spring and Rudolf Firkušný
The desire to escape a totalitarian regime and to preserve the possibility of artistic freedom led a number of Czech artists into emigration abroad. One of them was Rudolf Firkušný, whose flight from the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939 took him first to France and then eventually to the United States of America. Over time, the USA became his second home permanently. Over the next fifty years, he did not make many trips to his native country, so those moments were all the more extraordinary. Coincidentally, it would be the Prague Spring festival that almost symbolically was the first stop on each of Firkušný’s return visits to Czech concert stages.
Soon after the liberation of Czechoslovakia from Hitler’s domination in May of 1945, Rudolf Firkušný began to consider a return to his homeland. Because of his many prior concert engagements in North America, however, he was unable to make his return until 1946. Firkušný’s first post-war appearance on Czechoslovak soil thus took place during the very first year of the newly created Prague Spring festival, where the top star musicians from literally all over the world gathered. Firkušný made a total of three appearances at that year’s festival. First, on 19 May with the Czech Philharmonic and the conductor Jaroslav Krombholc, he played the Piano Concerto by Pavel Bořkovec, then a day later he appeared in a solo recital, at which, besides more traditional repertoire including Chopin’s Sonata in B minor, Op. 58 and selections from Smetana’s Bohemian Dances (The Bear, Polka, and Furiant), he also introduced music that was then contemporary. This involved the Sonata 1. X. 1905 by Leoš Janáček, by which Firkušný drew attention to his first composition teacher, who had served as his model. He also played new works by Bohuslav Martinů (Etude in E minor, Polka, Pastorale, and Etude in C major) and Samuel Barber (Three Excursions). The climax of Firkušný’s recital that evening was a piano arrangement of Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka. Under the baton of Rafael Kubelík, then the new, youthful music director of the Czech Philharmonic, Firkušný also appeared on the closing evening of the festival in the presence of President Edvard Beneš and of Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk, playing Dvořák’s Piano Concerto, with which he had been enjoying success all over the world since the mid-1930s. Few in the audience then had any idea that this would be one of Firkušný’s last performances in this country, and that his pianistic artistry would remain inaccessible to Czech audiences for many years. During those years, Firkušný became a persona non grata in his homeland, and his name was intentionally erased from Czech musical life.
Attempts to get Rudolf Firkušný to give concerts in Czechoslovakia again were not renewed until the last few years before the November revolution, when Firkušný was repeatedly invited by Prague Spring to make an appearance. Because of his disapproval of the Communist regime, however, he always refused these offers. As he explained it in his own words: “I did not want to become a part of pro-regime propaganda, or to lend them my name for their dirty games. And that is what I would have done by accepting an official invitation.” Not until shortly after the Velvet Revolution of November 1989 did Firkušný accept an invitation, and in 1990 at the 45th annual Prague Spring festival, he made yet another triumphant return. At his appearance on 28 May 1990, he played Bohuslav Martinů’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek. There can be no doubt that this was a truly extraordinary event. The concert was an indescribable success, and the public, including President Václav Havel and his wife Olga, welcomed the performer with endless, tumultuous applause. Shortly after the concert, Firkušný commented on his return to the Czech stage in an interview for the Czech newspaper Lidové noviny:
“I didn’t want to play a recital at the festival. I knew it was going to be such a terribly emotional affair for me, that I was rather afraid about whether I would play well. It was hard for me to imagine what would be going on inside me at the moment when I would appear before my public after so many years. So together with the Czech Philharmonic under the baton of Jiří Bělohlávek, we commemorated this year’s one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Martinů, who could no longer make such a lovely return home as now Rafael Kubelík and I were able to do. So Martinů could be there with me in at least this way!”
The Czech public witnessed another Firkušný´s appearance at Prague Spring two years later in 1992. This time, he chose his beloved Piano Concerto by Antonín Dvořák, and conducting the Czech Philharmonic was again Jiří Bělohlávek. Additionally, Firkušný presented himself in the role of an excellent accompanist in a recital with the violin virtuoso Josef Suk. Firkušný brought his appearances at Prague Spring to a close in 1993, when he was invited as a jury member for the festival’s piano competition, the winner of which was the Italian pianist Giovanni Bellucci.
Rudolf Firkušný left a permanent mark on the history of the Prague Spring festival with recordings of live performances. To this day, we can admire his youthful élan in the legendary recording of Dvořák’s Piano Concerto with the Czech Philharmonic and Rafael Kubelík from a live performance in 1946. Then in the 1990s, recordings were made that captured the pianistic artistry of Rudolf Firkušný in Bohuslav Martinů’s Second Piano Concerto and during a recital with Josef Suk.
Ondřej Pivoda, Veronika Vejvodová