INTERVIEW FOR RUDOLF FIRKUSNY
Festival in Prague (2019): English Translation
You’ve chosen Prague as your home. How do you feel as a citizen and as an artist?
I am not a Czech citizen, I only have a přehodny pobyt as the husband of a Czech citizen. My feelings for Prague are simply those of a human being who loves beauty and a Jew who was born and grew up in the former Soviet Union. I absolutely love living in Prague, all my family members and friends can confirm this. Since my first visit here in 2000 I fell in love with your beautiful city, and since much earlier times, when I learned some things about the history of Czechoslovakia (1938, 1968), I have always felt lots of respect and sympathy for your people. I moved here for family reasons, but I am really glad that it happened. Now when anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiments are raising their ugly head in France and the United Kingdom where I lived before (as well as in many other countries of Western Europe), I am truly happy to be living in the most pro-Israel country on the European continent. I greatly enjoy taking long walks around the central part of Prague, admiring its incredible beauty. After I left Russia 28 years ago, this is the country where I feel most at home. Every time upon returning from abroad, when we get out of the plain, I say to my wife: “Zeme ceska domov muj.”.
It is also a great pleasure for me to be the Patron of a theatre company in Prague which is called “Divadlo Marianny Arzumanove”. It was created by my sister-in-law who is an actress and a stage director, and it consists of actors from Czechia, Slovakia, Italy, Portugal, Poland, Ukraine and Russia. As the Patron, I am very glad to be able to share with people of Prague the message of liberty and humanism which the company’s productions are carrying from one show to another.
Do people recognize you?
You mean here in Prague? Yes, they do sometimes, but not as often as in some other cities (New York, for example).
Does it bother you? I know you are a person who values privacy...
It is true that I value privacy, but the people who recognize me (or at least most of them) love my playing, value what I do and tell me so. Therefore not only does it not bother me, but on the contrary, it makes me feel very good.
Do you have friends here?
Of course, I do: my wife has lived here for 17 years and has naturally made friends here, so her friends have become my friends.
Is it convenient to live in the center of Europe?
For me it is most convenient. I always wanted to live in Europe, I love traveling around Europe, most of my concerts take place in Europe — so what can be more convenient than living in the centre of it?
Prague used to be a great inspiration for artists. The city has also a great Jewish tradition and this is what you are interested in. Has it inspired you to write poems or music?
No, it hasn’t — because I am unable to create anything as beautiful as Prague. Q.: Sometimes we can see you at concerts in Prague — but unfortunately in the audience, not on the stage...
Is there a chance that you will perform more often in Prague — solo or in a chamber ensemble? Or give an evening with poetry?
I sincerely hope so. Not only do I love the city of Prague, but I also love the Rudolfinum Hall, both as a performer and as a listener.
But I also have another wish for Prague: that more and more great artists come to perform here on a regular basis. Such a magnificent city with such a rich cultural history deserves to become a major European music centre again, as it was in the times of Mozart and Mahler! I am very glad that musicians like Christopher Eschenbach and Simon Rattle performed here last year, and I very much hope that your wonderful audience will have an opportunity to enjoy more and more performances of that level in the near future. Culture is what makes a country and a nation great; people love Czechia because of Dvořák and Smetana, Janáček and Martinů, Hašek and Čapek, Kundera and Forman. The richer the cultural life in a country is, the more a country is open to other cultural influences, to the best achievements of the world culture — the more great culture it will be able to create itself.
Recently you have been appointed honorary chairman of the Antonio Mormone International Prize. How about your attitude towards competitions? Have you ever attended some? Or you were lucky not have to?
I didn’t have to, so I have no attitude towards competitions in general. When I was growing up in Moscow, the Tchaikovsky International Music Competition which was taking place every four years was a very important event for the Russian music lovers, I remember very well that special atmosphere, how enthusiastic people were, filling the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire several times a day, discussing what’s they’ve just heard — but I never projected the feelings I was experiencing then on competitions in general. The Antonio Mormone International Prize is important to me because of Antonio Mormone who was my Italian agent and a good friend for many years. He was a remarkable man who loved music and valued young talents, so I believe that this competition will be an appropriate way to honour Antonio’s memory.
After a break of 25 years, you’ve signed a new exclusive contract with DG. How has the recording industry changed since then? Can you give example – the situation when you started to record and now.
First, of all, I would like to clarify one thing: this is the first time I signed an exclusive contract in my life. Never before have I had exclusive contracts with anybody.
As for your question, I can only state the well known fact: when I started making records, there was no Internet, whereas nowadays lots of people (including myself) listen to music mainly on the internet and consequently buy much fewer records than before. That was the reason for the crisis that the recording industry suffered a few years ago and from which it has now apparently found ways to recover.
Beethoven. His music can give answers to many questions. How do you enjoy his music in your present phase of life?
You said it very well: “his music can give answers to many questions”. That’s why in my opinion one cannot “enjoy” his music: it gives you goosebumps, it changes you, it elevates you to heaven and throws you down into abyss! That’s what I’ve always, in all the stages of my life, felt in Beethoven’s music. I believe that in our troubled times his music, which is full of humanism and the determination to grab the destiny by the throat, is especially valuable and needed.
Does the evening of Firkusny festival have a “story” – going from the earlier stages of Beethoven’s music forward? Could you describe it?
No, it does not have a story — and I don’t build up my programmes in that way. A particular piece of music can have a story (Schumann’s Carnival, Scriabin’s 3rd and 4th Sonatas etc.), but I create my programmes on the purely musical basis, without any “stories” behind them.
What’s happening in the mind of a pianist while performing? What can you perceive from the audience? How do you usually feel?
I can only speak for myself. I am always concentrated on the music and trying to do my best. Of course, I feel the audience and their reaction to the music. I remember many years ago when I came to play in Sapporo for the first time, I was told that classical music wasn’t very popular there yet, that even for Sviatoslav Richter’s concert only 70% of the tickets had been sold. During my concert, while playing, I was feeling that there was some kind of invisible wall between me and the audience which I could not break. However, that was the only experience of that kind in my entire life. 12 years later I played in Sapporo again, and everything was completely different, the audience were very receptive and enthusiastic like everywhere else (and by then they had built a new concert hall, a wonderful one like all concert halls in Japan).
How many languages can you speak and how does it feel inside when you communicate in Yiddish?
Russian is my first language, I am fluent in English and can communicate in French (although I read French much better than I speak it). I also know several hundred words and expressions in Hebrew, but I can’t say that I really know the language. As for Yiddish... once one woman, seeing me speaking Yiddish, said: “Er klaybt nakhes!” which literally means “he is deriving pleasure”.
I’ve heard some of your compositions which you performed as encores. I find them fantastic. Do you intend to write something of a larger scale? Publish them?
Thank you very much for the compliment. Three of my compositions have just been published by the Henle Verlag: 4 pieces for piano solo, Sonata for cello and piano and String Quartet. Recently I finished working on a poem for female voice and piano based on the text of William Cullen Briant’s “Thanatopsis” which the Henle Verlag are going to publish. Now I am working on a song cycle for baritone and piano based on texts by Alexander Blok; I have already written 2 songs out of the 6 planned.
Whether or not I’ll write something of a larger scale, I don’t know, for me it’s a matter of inspiration. I love composing, but my main work is playing piano, and it’s really difficult to combine the two things, because each of them requires time and concentration. Even Sergei Rachmaninov admitted that he could not do both at the same time, he had to devote his time either to playing piano or to composing during particular periods of time.
The book of your memoirs has been published. Was replacing the public image of yours by your own the aim?
No, it wasn’t. The aim, to tell you honestly, was to get rid of interviews — but obviously I haven’t achieved it ;-) .
What did you want and didn’t want to communicate with the readers?
Everything I wanted to communicate to the readers is in the book. Everything I didn’t want to communicate was not mentioned in it.
We live in a time where the details of our lives are exposed to public. And great artists’ lives all the more so. How did you deal with this fact? When you were younger and now?
The details of my life which I don’t want to be exposed to public are not exposed and have never been exposed, so there has never been a problem for me in this respect.
I suppose you read much. What books can you name which were like milestones of your life?
I could name two such books, both of which were published in Russia in 1996. The first one was “The Shakespeare Game or the Mystery of the Great Phoenix” by Ilya Gililov. It deals with the Shakespeare Authorship Question about which I, of course, had known before I read the book, but had basically been indifferent to it, thinking: who cares who wrote those masterpieces, as long as they exist? However the story that emerged from Gililov’s hypothesis (which I found strikingly convincing) moved me to the depths of my soul, because it revealed that the Shakespeare mystery was part of probably the most incredible life story in the history of mankind. Besides that, it made me (and I am sure other readers as well) read Shakespeare’s works with different eyes, perceive them from a completely different angle, and even more importantly, it presented a totally different dimension of literature, history and human creativity in general. I was very lucky to have met and befriended Ilya Gililov pretty soon after reading the book. He was a marvelous man: highly intelligent, extremely erudite (“a walking encyclopedia”, as we say in Russian), totally unselfish, modest and open to people.
The other book was Vladimir Bukovsky’s “Judgement in Moscow”. As I mentioned before, it was published in Russia back in 1996, but only now is it finally being published in English in the United States. I read it about 10 years ago, and it did indeed become a milestone of my life. Here is why.
This book consists mainly of documents from secret archives of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union which Bukovsky was able to get hold of in 1992. These documents contain lots of invaluable information not only about the Communist crimes, but also about the Western complicity in them. Of course, I was not surprised about the Communist crimes, I knew about those all my life since I was a teenager. What really shocked me however was the extent of the Western complicity revealed by the documents in the book. Not only did it shock me, but it also explained to me something which had been bothering me for several years and to which I had not been able to find an explanation until I read “Judgement in Moscow”.
Having grown up in the former Evil Empire, I was always a convinced champion of the Western political and economic system, ideology and ideals and always considered the Western media as the mouthpiece of truth on our planet. However, when in early 2000s the anti-Israel sentiments began to rise throughout the Western world, I realized that “something was rotten in the state of Denmark”: after all, Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, so logically the West should be Israel’s natural ally in her fight against her non-democratic (even antidemocratic!) enemies. I could not comprehend what was going on until Bukovsky’s book made me realize one important thing: WESTERN IDEALS AND WESTERN ESTABLISHMENT ARE NOT THE SAME THING, THE LATTER TOO OFTEN BETRAY THE FORMER. Of course, I had known since long ago about some facts of such betrayal: the infamous Munich Agreement of 1938 was a very striking example of it! However I could not imagine the extent of the contradiction between the Western ideals and the Western politics.
“Judgement in Moscow” which consists of some 600 pages has only one passage about Israel in its last chapter, but that passage also shocked me a lot. Here it is:
“In the Middle East the so-called “peace process” has acquired all the traits of a growing calamity: it has already cost Israel more lives than the country lost during the Six-Day War. What else was to be expected from the “peace process”, secretly concocted in Norway by the international socialist nomenklatura?
However the main consequences are still awaiting us, and they should be awaited not only in the Middle East: try to stop a terrorist today, when Yasir Arafat’s bright example is shining to each of them. The moral standard of the “new world order” can therefore be formulated in the following way: if you have enough guts to keep killing innocent people for a long time, then you are no longer a terrorist, but a statesman and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Have no doubts, this point of view has not remained unnoticed by Hamas, nor by the IRA in Northern Ireland or by the different factions fighting in Bosnia...”.
What shocked me most about that statement was that it was made back in mid-1990s and, even more importantly, that it was made by a person who was not Jewish. I remember those times: had a Jew said something like this then, he would have been branded a reactionary and an enemy of peace! And here was a Gentile who proved to be far more intelligent and farsighted in general and regarding the Jewish interests in particular than many Jews...
I always greatly admired Bukovsky and was extremely lucky to meet this extraordinary man too. He is a very different type from Gililov, but they share the same qualities: high intelligence, erudition, independent thinking, total unselfishness, modesty and openness to people.
Recently you’ve started to speak in public about your Jewish heritage and about the politics towards Israel. I thought about Daniel Barenboim and his projects in Palestina. Have you ever spoken to him about it? Do you two artists have a similar opinion? And does the world listen to musicians enough?
No, we haven’t spoken to each other about it: we see each other very rarely, only once every few years. Regarding my opinion, I think that what I said above answers this question. I don’t know and don’t care whether the world listens to musicians enough, as far as musicians’ political opinions are concerned. I have a great admiration for Leonard Bernstein as a musician, but I am very glad that the world didn’t listen to the suggestion he made at the peak of the Cold War that the United States should disarm unilaterally, arguing that it would present no danger to his country since the Soviet leaders surely would not want to conquer America and rule such a big country in the English language (as if they did not conquer numerous other countries and did not rule them in their respective languages!) and the Russian people who suffered so much did not want war (as if the wishes of the Russian people ever influenced the politics of the totalitarian Soviet state!). I would like the world to listen to THE VOICE OF REASON, whether it comes from musicians or people of other professions. I believe that the proud people of your small country have learned the hard lessons of 1938 and 1968, they know the value of freedom and the mortal danger of attempts to appease the aggressor by territorial concessions. I, a Jew and an Israeli, deeply appreciate your country’s attitude and policy towards Israel, and I am happy to say to you loud and clear: UNITED WE STAND!