Notes and Editorial Reviews
Zuzana Ruzicková was a force of nature. Interned in multiple concentration camps during the Second World War and forced to perform slave labor, she was liberated from Bergen-Belsen in 1945, married composer Victor Kalabis, and continued studies in post-War Czechoslovakia. As we all know, the communist countries of Eastern Europe were not known for offering consumers much choice–one car manufacturer, one brand of toothpaste, and (it seems) one harpsichord player–Ruzicková. How she did it was anyone’s guess. She was Jewish and still persecuted under the Communist regime–she refused to join the Party–and yet she thrived, possibly because her talent permitted her to earn foreign currency, which naturally she was not permitted to
keep. She was, and remains, a legend.
This two-disc set doesn’t begin to do justice to her recorded legacy, which includes at its core all of Bach’s harpsichord works. Surely she deserves a “big box” collection of her own, but until then this will have to do. Disc One consists of Baroque music: lively and supple performances of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, the French Suite No. 5, and Concerto for Harpsichord in G major, BWV 980 (after Vivaldi). The ten Scarlatti sonatas which follow are well done too, but the instrument has an odd “buzz” and Ruzicková’s Scarlatti is better represented on her stunningly engineered disc for Orfeo.
When it came to choice of instrument, Ruzicková was old school–and perhaps more authentic than the authenticists. She preferred to have multiple stops at her disposal, with a huge range of timbres and dynamics, and this made her playing uncommonly interesting and ear-catching. It also suited the modern pieces on Disc Two perfectly. Falla’s Harpsichord Concerto glitters. In the Martinu Concerto, reissued many times, her instrument has no problem confronting the imposing sonority of the orchestral piano. The two solo works, Sei invenzioni canonici by her husband Kalabis and Hommaggi gravicembalistici by Jan Rychlík, are delightful–good modern neoclassical pieces.
However, the real gem of this collection is Ruzicková’s benchmark reading of Poulenc’s Concerto champêtre. Here at last is a performance on an instrument that holds its own against the orchestra, played with elegance, wit, but also a certain seriousness that supports the music’s claim to greatness. It helps to have on hand the Czech Philharmonic conducted by no less then Kurt Sanderling, who sharp characterization of the orchestral part lets us know from the first measure that this piece is much more than a lighthearted jeu d’esprit, though of course it is that too. For the Poulenc alone, very well engineered and only released previously on an obscure Denon disc decades ago, this collection is worth acquiring. An important set, then, by a great artist who deserves far more recognition than circumstances ever allowed.
-- David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
In their rush to make new rules for the performance of Baroque music, and particularly to determine which harpsichords and other keyboard instruments may or may not be used, the Historically-Informed Performance (HIP) crowd has pushed musicians like Zuzana Ružicková and Wanda Landowska into a newly-created Forbidden Zone, damning their work as overblown and lacking the Refinement, don’t you know, of their own Enlightened Path. A review on Classics Today of Ružicková’s recording of the Bach Harpsichord Concertos, conducted by Vacláv Neumann, struggles to apologize for the reviewer liking the record so much, saying “this is one of those discs that offers what can only be called a ‘guilty pleasure.’ Intellectually you know it’s old-fashioned and in some sense ‘wrong;’ but then one of those purple patches sails in and, authenticity be damned, you can’t help but love it.”
But perhaps I should back up a bit for those who, like myself, were previously unfamiliar with Ružicková. She is Czech, born in 1927, and during the 1940s her entire family was interred at Nazi concentration camps, moving from one to another and losing family members along the way. At war’s end, only she and her mother were still alive—somehow, miraculously, spared while the rest of the family was not. She had done so much hard labor at the camps that one keyboard teacher was afraid that she had ruined her hands, but even without such difficulties Ružicková always had to overcome the handicap of having very small hands with short fingers. That she did so is a tribute to her determination. She had been enrolled in Wanda Landowska’s school in Paris by her piano teacher, who noted Zuzana’s great affinity for Bach, but before lessons could start Hitler moved in and everything was disrupted. Thus she never got to meet the harpsichord legend, but devoted her life to following in her footsteps to “rid the harpsichord of its museum nature and make it a living instrument.” On the other hand, she does not completely reject all historical performance research. “I take my hat off to everyone who strives to show us how a composition was played at the time of its origination,” she is quoted in the booklet, “yet I don’t merely want to imitate the past.”
Listening to her exceptionally well-paced and singing performances of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue and French Suite No. 5, one hears a harpsichord a little richer in sound than the dry-boned little things that many (but not all) HIP performers use, but certainly nothing that sounds like the heavy-framed traveling harpsichord that Landowska used after World War II. That sound only emerges in the Bach transcription of Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in B? and, as I mentioned when reviewing Elizabeth Farr’s superb recordings of all of the Bach concerto transcriptions on Naxos 8.572006/07, the use of a fairly large harpsichord with a 16-foot set of strings—which produces a rich and heavy sound—was apparently called for by Bach in those works, so Ružicková’s performance here is entirely in keeping with acceptable Baroque practice. I was, however, a bit dismayed by her choice of tempos for this performance, which struck me as rather more cautious and conservative than her other Bach performances (Ružicková takes 13:18 to Farr’s 9:53), thus in this one work she might have improved on the recording. The slow movement sounds particularly leaden, running 4:56 to Farr’s 3:15, although the latter might be said to be a bit too quick for the music’s good.
Happily, the sparkle in Ružicková’s playing returns with the Scarlatti sonatas. What joy she has in playing them! It almost sounds as if the music “springs” from her fingers, leaping from the plectrum on the strings and into your ears without human intervention. She uses the damper pedal to good effect, for instance in the Sonata K 278, varying her touch so as to produce subtle yet noticeable gradations of sound.
On CD 2 we hear a number of 20th-century works, including Six Canonic Variations for Harpsichord by her late husband, Viktor Kalabis. Whatever reservations you might have about her performances of Baroque music are immediately swept aside upon hearing these works, for here is a keyboardist who “knows her stuff” and is not about to let differing musical styles inhibit her immense musicality or enthusiasm. I’m not sure if these works were recording premieres, but the box insert indicates that all but the Martin? Concerto are appearing for the first time on CD. (For the record, the Poulenc and Rychlik works were recorded in 1967, the Kalabis in 1976, the Falla in 1978, and the Martin? in 1987.) Each is a gem in its own way, exploring and exploiting the harpsichord sound either within differing melodic-harmonic frameworks or, like the Falla which was definitely created under the influence of Stravinsky, in a different sound texture. Kalabis’s set of variations begins with a whirling rhythm which, once set in motion, continues on its own until the composer decides to throw in a few pauses just to see if we are paying attention. The first “invention” ends on an unexpected discord while the second, an adagio , seems never to settle on a tonality it likes, though it always seems to be seeking one. Although all six pieces are written in canon form, the casual listener may not be aware of this until the third piece, which is the first of them that really sounds like a canon, at least formally. Invention No. 4 has something of a Kabalevsky quality about it; No. 5 is the most lyrical and singing piece in the set; and No. 6 rides out on another wave of rhythm.
This was my first hearing of the Poulenc Concert champêtre, an extraordinary work in that—like so much of the best Poulenc—it is musically interesting and entertaining at the same time, the Allegro molto of the first movement having more than a few Bachian elements thrown in (and tossed around) by both soloist and orchestra. In the second and third movements, however, I noted a decline as the music took on a much more pop or movie music feel. Jan Rychlik’s bitonal Hommaggi gravicembalistici uses as its basis pieces by Bernardo Pasquini, Carlos Seixas, Antonio de Cabezón, and François Couperin, deconstructing and rebuilding the elements of their pieces according to his own lights. Even better, overall, than the Poulenc Concerto is the one by Martin?, composed in 1935 for Marcelle de Laclour, a Landowska pupil. The composer uses Baroque elements much more imaginatively, often juxtaposing these with colorations and melodic-rhythmic concepts that are entirely original yet never sound ostentatious or affected. (One of the more interesting touches, in the first movement, is the call-and-response set up between the harpsichord and a modern piano.) R?ži?ková admits in the liner notes that her meeting of Martin? and fondness for this Concerto, which she has played all over the world, helped cement her relationship with more modern harpsichord works.
The recording dates span a quarter of a century, from 1967 to 1991, and the remastering of the older analog recordings is excellent. Other than the somewhat overly-cautious reading of the Bach-Scarlatti Harpsichord Concerto, I can’t think of a single reason why any music lover, and particularly any harpsichord lover, wouldn’t want to own this set.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
Work(s) by Domenico Scarlatti
Zuzana Ruzicková (Harpsichord)
Written: 18th Century
Concerto for Harpsichord by Bohuslav Martinu
Zuzana Ruzicková (Harpsichord)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1935; Czech Republic
Be the first to review this title