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Masters of the piano in the Dvorak Hall of the Rudolfinum.

I travel a great deal and so I have a basis for comparison. I can say with a clear conscience that Prague is truly lucky in having acoustically good concert halls. The Dvorak Hall can hold its own even beside such

celebrated venues as the halls in Amsterdam, Boston and Vienna. Paris, for example, doesn't have this kind of quality and in New York there is only the Carnegie Hall. But the Dvorak Hall has not only outstanding acoustics, but also a unique charm, producing a feeling of special intimacy.

(Garrick Ohlson on the Dvorak Hall of the Rudolfinum in an interview about the Prague Spring Festival 2000)

The Great Hall of the Rudolfinum, only renamed the Dvorak Hall years after the Second World War, was the first Prague concert hall designed just for music. It is acoustically ideal for solo piano, which is why so many masters have played here and such a large number of outstanding and lasting recordings of masterly interpretations have been recorded here.



The Rudolfinum was opened for concerts 120 years ago on the 7th of February 1885. This was just as the great epoch of piano virtuosity and composing for piano was coming to an end both in the Czech Lands and internationally. Less than a year beforehand Bedrich Smetana had died, and just over a year afterwards Franz Liszt. Throughout Europe the following years were above all the epoch of their pupils, although of course musicians and composers from other schools and following other models were active as well. The only one of Bedrich Smetana's pupils to achieve the status of virtuoso pianist was Josef Jiranek, who retained and recapitulated Smetana's own style in his play and even the details of his idiom. He played solo and in chamber music at the Rudolfinum, among others with the Czech Quartet. The crown of his activities in this period were his performances at concerts for the Smetana exhibition in 1917. Jindrich Kaan of Albesty was a pupil of the Karel Proksch School and of Vilem Blodek. He distinguished himself as the Liszt type of piano virtuoso with spectacular technique, and like Liszt he wrote virtuoso transcriptions and fantasias and performed them with brilliance. One of Kaan's pupils was Karel Hoffmeister, the pianist contemporary of Vitezslav Novak and Josef Suk. He placed the emphasis on accuracy of performance in terms of style and content, and was an outstanding teacher. In the last years before and during 1st World War the Rudolfinum witnessed the first great triumphs of Mikes's pupil Jan Herman. He shone with his performances of the Beethoven concertos G major and E flat major with the Czech Philharmonic (1907, 1913) and from 1909 as an interpreter of the works of Bedrich Smetana as well. All these pianists had become professors at the Conservatory in Prague before the 1st World War.


The intellectually and poetically orientated musician, aesthete and composer Vaclav Stepan, the pupil of various Czech and foreign teachers, made a great name for himself from 1911 with premieres of Novak's Pan, Suk's Life and Dream and other works by these masters impressionists, but also Smetana and others. Information on the musicians who performed specifically in the Rudolfinum is hard to find since the reviews that provide most of our evidence for the concert life of the past often fail to indicate where concerts were held, and the researcher sometimes only finds out about some events from incidental mentions in literature where one would hardly expect mentions of piano performances. Take Antonin Dvorak, for example. A great deal is written about his appearances as a conductor in the Rudolfinum. He played on the piano in public only rarely, but did so on a concert tour of Czech towns when he was saying farewell to his homeland before his departure for America. The fact that he also played in the Rudolfinum is something we learn from the memoirs of his pupil Vitezslav Novak, who relates how he went to the Master to borrow the music for Dumkas, explaining that he wanted to play them with friends in Kromeriz. Dvorak apparently remarked ironically: "That could be a fine old disaster", to which Novak immediately retorted: "When you played the Dumas with Wihan and Lachner in the Rudolfinum, Maestro, Rubinstein was sitting in a box above you and watching your fingers." Dvorak was appalled, "For God's sake, what must he have thought of me?" and leant the Dumkas without further ado. Whether Novak played publicly in the Rudolfinum as well is something we don't know, since there is no written record of such a thing. Nor do we know whether it was in the Rudolfinum that the Prague concert took place at which Leos Janacek heard his own Sonata From the Street 1. X. 1905 side by side with piano pieces by Novak and Suk and was so self-critically mortified that on his return from the concert he threw the manuscript off a bridge when crossing the Vltava. Perhaps it was. We know that he used to stay in Prague at the Hotel U Karla IV. in Smichov. A walk back from the Rudolfinum would have taken him over a bridge.

The pianist and composer and in his time highly respected Russian musician Anton Rubinstein, a performer of Lisztian type, played in the Rudolfinum in 1892. Among Franz Liszt's direct pupils, one who appeared was the Austrian pianist Emil Ritter von Sauer, who became famous for his interpretations of Chopin and older music. Another pianist of the Lisztian and Rubinesteinian type who made very powerful impression in Prague was Teresa Careno from Venzuela. The critics of the time spoke of her grand tone and ardent, ravishing, almost demonic play. Pianists who played at the Rudolfinum also included the Russians Vladimir Pachman, Sapelnikov and Siloti, the Pole Ignacy Paderewski, distinguished performer of Chopin and first prime minister of Poland after the re-establishment of the state in 1918, the German composer and piano virtuoso Eugen d'Albert and from France Camille Saint-Sauns, his compatriot Alfred Cortot and numerous others.


After the First World War concerts were discontinued in the Rudolfinum. The parliament of the newly established Czechoslovak Republic chose it as parliament buildings and the protests of musicians were ignored. Only under the German occupation was the building returned to concert operations in 1940 after thorough internal reconstruction. Over the intervening 22 years dozens of important pianists had visited Prague from abroad and a new generation of Czech pianists had come to the fore, their leading representative Rudolf Firkusny; all these musicians had to play elsewhere in Prague. International musical life did not of course return to the Rudolfinum in the midst of a Europe at war, and so the re-opened hall was used, as it were belatedly, by pianists who had made major names under the First Republic, such as Frantisek Maxian, Josef Palenicek, Frantisek Rauch, Vaclav Holzknecht with his interest in playing contemporary music, Vera Repkova with her devotion to the work of Smetana, and the most prominent young hopes Viktorie Svihlikova, Ilja Hurnik, Pavel Stepan and Zdenek Jilek.

The full development of international concert life at the Rudolfinum came only in the period after the end of the war. The major factor in this trend was the new Prague Spring International Music Festival held annually from 1946. Rafael Kubelik founded it primarily as an event at which the Czech Philharmonic could present new work by composers from allied countries--and of course Bohuslav Martinu--and at which the world could get to know the most important new Czech works. From the beginning the Prague Spring was also a platform for leading international performers. Soon it became the custom for pianists to play concertante works with orchestras in the Smetana Hall, while the Rudolfinum was the venue for solo recitals and some chamber concerts. The Czech Philharmonic and other orchestras apart from the FOK Prague Symphony Orchestra performed piano concertos in the Rudolfinum only during the rest of the season. The FOK concert agency's star-studded cycle World Piano Music used to take place here, and the Czech Philharmonic and other institutions would hold recitals.


From the first years of the festival, musicians from Soviet Russia enjoyed huge successes. In the second year, at the 1947 Prague Spring, Dmitri Shostakovich played his own chamber works here: The Piano Trio no. 2 with David Oistrach and Milos Sadlo, solo Piano Sonata and the Piano Quintet with the Pesek Quartet. Soon audiences here were also to be dazzled by the Russian virtuosi Lev Oborin and Emil Gilels. Gilels especially was for long decades a fixed star of the festival, astounding the public with his perfect combination of vertiginous technique and ingenious, poetic and passionate expressiveness. In 1950 Sviatoslav Richter came to the festival for the first time. He was soon to become a top international pianist and throughout his concert career would be welcomed with rapture in Prague. His play radiated charisma, an expression of the way in which he was creating not just Soviet art (as was often suggested in communist propaganda) but absolute art for all humanity. Richter could be tough and courageous. I remember a concert of his in the Rudolfinum probably some time in the 1970s, when soon after he started he was unpleasantly surprised by floodlights for the television cameras. He stopped playing and insistently gestured for the lights to be removed. A television director came up onto the podium to try and persuade him. Richter did not argue, but simply left the podium saying he would come back and play when the lights were taken away. The television team resisted for about a quarter of an hour but then removed the cameras. Only then did the Maestro return and the public enthusiastically applauded him for defending the calm needed for an intense musical experience. Later even the Rudolfinum seemed insufficiently intimate for him and he looked for smaller venues in rural, ideally spa towns. In fact the problem was insoluble. I recall how he once played at a concert for the South Bohemian Summer Music Festival in Bechyne. It was arranged at the very last minute, but just a tiny notice in the newspapers was enough to have crowds of people who had been on holiday in the area rushing to the concert. Richter ended up playing in an overstuffed airless hall, in a much worse environment than a full Rudolfinum.


Russian pianists of genius and other outstanding virtuosi continued to appear in later years. Thus in the 1960s and 1970s the Rudolfinum was host to the versatile Rudolf Kerer and also Yakov Flier, Yevgeny Mogilevski, Vladimir Krajnev, Viktorie Post-nikova, Yakov Zak, Alexander Slobodnyak, from the 1980s Lazar Berman and alongside him Mikhail Pletnev, winner of the Prague Spring Competition in 1988, Sergei Tarasov and others.


Outstanding pianists came to the first Prague Springs and seasons from other parts of the world as well. Prague fell in love with the Austrians Friedrich Gulda and later Paul Badura-Skoda, Alfred Brendel, Jorg Demus, Hanns Kann and Walter Klien. The Swiss Nikita Magaloff made a strong impression. In subsequent years German pianists had a major impact, including Wilhelm Kempff (especially as a specialist at the Ludwig van Beethoven anniversary in 1970), Christoph Eschenbach, Dieter Zechlin, Gerhard Opitz, and the duo of the brothers Aloys and Alfons Kontarsky.


In the first post-war years France was represented in the Rudolfinum primarily by the works of the impressionists and others: the performers were the French women Germaine Leroux, Maria Aimee Warrot and Monique Haas, at a later date Cecile Ousset, France Clidat and men Robert Casadesus and Philipe Entremont. Poland was also represented in the Rudolfinum after the war as a piano great power. One pianist who was very well received and invited more than once was Halina Czerny-Stefanska; Stanislav Szpinalski, Stefan Ashkenaze, Barbara Hesse-Bukowska, Adam Harasiewicz, Regina Smendzjanka, and exceptionally the almost eighty-year-old Arthur Rubinstein all played here: most of them performing mainly Chopin.


Hungarian musicians made a significant contribution as well. For decades Annie Fischer would play here, and later Hungarians living in the west of Europe Geza Anda and Gyorgy Cziffra, as well as the younger Zoltan Kocsis and Tamas Vasary who were based in Hungary. The Rumanian Valentin Gheorghiu, also a composer, came to Prague five times in the decade 1951-61 alone, and played Romantic and 20th-century music. The founder of Bulgarian national music Pancho Vladigerov played his Piano Concerto no. 3 at the Prague Spring in 1948, the Prague Spring Competition was won in 1963 by the young Rumjan Atanasov and in 1969 the Bulgarian pianist living in the West, Alexis Weissenberg, made a strong impression.


Italian pianists were among those who shone on the podium of the Dvorak Hall. Giovanni Dell' Angolo performed in the Rudolfinum at the beginning of 1950, and later Aldo Ciccolini, Michel Campanelli, Andrea Lucchini played there repeatedly. But the most prominent and most distinctive of the Italians, on an international scale, was Arturo Benedetti-Michelangeli. From 1958 he often came to Prague and dazzled the public with the captivating sound of a Czech PETROF piano; he gave particularly individual performances of the impressionist repertoire. After Benedetti-Michelangeli, the Italian pianist to have the greatest impact in Prague was Maurizio Pollini.


Among Iberian pianists who came to the Rudolfinum in the last thirty years of the 20th century, the most appealing and suggestive was the Portuguese Sequeira Costa. More interesting performers came from Great Britain: the pianists Nicole Henriot, Moura Lympany, the Greek-born pianist living in England Gina Bachauer, John Lill, Clifford Curzon and most successfully John Ogdon.


In the Dvorak Hall the USA showed itself a superpower in piano virtuosity as well. Apart from individual recitals by Irving Heller and Grant Johannesen, Shura Cherkassky was highly successful here, and in 1969 Julius Katchen (who died so prematurely) and Eugen Indjic; Garrick Ohlsson was massively popular.


South American piano culture achieved a strikingly high profile. From the later 1960s the Chilean Claudio Arrau and the Argentinian Martha Argerich came to play at the Rudolfinum repeatedly, and another Argentinian Bruno Leonard Geber performed here more than once. Outstanding pianists from other countries made isolated appearances: the Yugoslav Dubravka Tomsic, Hioko Nakamura from Japan, and the Moscow trained Vietnamese pianist Dang Thai Son and others.

Naturally, however, Czech pianists also played in Prague in abundance. In addition to the musicians of the middle generation mentioned above, fortune favoured the young upcoming generation. Under the occupation numerous talented students had matured technically and musically in relative quiet, and now that thorough training was bearing fruit. Successes here were achieved by Anna Machova, and Eva Bernathova, who studied in Budapest. The 1949-50 season saw the take-off of the careers of two musicians who were to be at the forefront of Czech piano for many decades: Ivan Moravec and Jan Panenka.

The International Piano Competition for the Bedrich Smetana Prize, held in the Rudolfinum, offered great opportunists for young pianists. In 1948, among the Czech pianists Eva Glancova won the 3rd Prize, Anna Machova the 4th Prize and the 5th Prize went to the pianist and composer Jiri Vrestal. 1951 saw the triumph of young Soviet pianists: the 1st Prize was shared by Marina Slesaryeva and Gleb Axelrod, and the other prizes went to Czechs as well as Russians: 2nd Prize Jan Panenka, 3rd Prize Mirka Pokorna, 4th Prize Pavel Stepan. The next time this competition was held, in 1957, the 1st Prize was awarded to Zdenek Hnat, and 2nd Prize to Jan Novotny, a specialist in the music of Smetana and Jaroslav Jezek. The International Prague Spring Competition in 1963 brought to the fore the visually impaired Vaclav Zeleny, as well as Dagmar Simonkova, Peter Toperczer and Emil Leichner. Other great talents were also discovered: the temperamental Odessa-born Valentina Kamenikova, a student of Nejgauz, the specialist in the piano music of Dvorak and Janacek Radoslav Kvapil, Dagmar Baloghova, and in the 1970s and 1980s Ivan Klansky, Boris Krajny, Frantisek Maly, Frantisek Maxian junior, Miroslav Langer and others. The Prague Spring Competition in 1988 launched the careers of the Czech winners of the third prize, who in subsequent years made major names for themselves: the Brno pianist Igor Ardasev and Jan Simon from Prague. Cruel human fate and political reversals led to abrupt ends or breaks in careers started in the Rudolfinum: Jiri Vrestal (see above) and Antonin Jemelik died young, Renata Arnetova abandoned a concert carreer, Eva Bernathova and Vaclav Zeleny emigrated (for both see above), as did Antonin Kubalek, Jiri Hlinka, Richard Kratzmann, and Bozena Steinerova. We should also mention outstanding duos, in Prague Ilja Hurnik and Pavel Stepan, in Brno Vera and Vlastimil Lejsek. As far as specialists in chamber music and accompaniment are concerned, in the generation of Maxian and Rauch the outstanding figure here was Alfred Holecek, and in the generation of Panenka and Moravec it was Josef Hala--who only rarely, but very successfully, gave solo concert recitals.

The end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s represented a striking dividing line between the long post-war and current epoch of concert life in the Rudolfinum. By coincidence this was also the time of the end of total-itarianism, but the actual break in programming was caused by reconstruction of the building. For some months there was a redistribution of live music through the other venues of Prague, with more space being made available for piano elsewhere. There were piano recitals in the Clementinum, and in newly open interiors in the St. Agnes Convent, for example. The Rudolfinum was out of operation from the autumn of 1989 to the summer of 1993 and when it reopened, apart from the activities of the home Czech Philharmonic, concerts did not return to it immediately on the same scale as before. This was because some contractual obligations had to be fulfilled elsewhere first, for example the popular World Piano Music cycle had temporarily found another home.

Only at this point did important emigrants start to return, including pianists who had earlier been unable or unwilling to come to Prague. Among the Czechs this was above all Rudolf Firkusny, and among the Russians working in the West it was Vladimir Ashkenazy. After some initial piano recitals Ashkenazy appeared here mainly as a conductor. When he became principal conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, he put on the attraction with which Bruno Walter had once dazzled the public on the model of the composer himself--he simultaneously played and conducted the Mozart Piano Concerto in D major. Other Russian piano masters were discovered, including Elisabeth Leonskaya, Yevgeny Kissin, and Oleg Meissenberg, who after injuring his right hand in a car accident, appeared in the Rudolfinum with Ravel's Concerto in D major for Left-Handed Piano. Other talents emerged from the west, such as the American Jefim Bronfman, the Frenchman Ian Fountain, the Norwegian Leif Ove Andsnes, the Pole Piotr Paleczny, the Japanese Masako Ezaki, the Germans Lars Vogt and Andreas Boyde, and from England Murray Perahia, who leads and at the same time conducts the famous Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields, and many others.

The main events in the piano programme in the Dvorak Hall, however, are recitals by maestri who have long ago proved their sovereign qualities here. And therefore Ohlsson, Berman, Costa, Indjic, Moravec, Klansky and others go on playing here and enjoying the favour of the public.

Finally a new generation of excellent Czech pianists is emerging. Let us name at least Jitka Cechova, Daniel Wiesner, Adam Skoumal, Martin Kasik (see the interview), the laureate of the Prague Spring Competition in 2004 Ivo Kahanek, Jaroslava Pechocova, Lukas Vondracek, and the duo Zdenka Kolarova and Martin Hrsel. The Dvorak Hall goes on waiting for new masters.
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Title Annotation:venue
Author:Smolka, Jaroslav
Publication:Czech Music
Date:Oct 1, 2005
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