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The first musician to record the complete works of Bach for keyboard, and a key figure in the revival of the harpsichord, Zuzana Růžičková died on Wednesday after a brief illness.
Her story is one of extraordinary resilience. Born in 1927 to Jewish parents, Růžičková started keyboard lessons at the age of nine. Before long, her teacher was so impressed by her talent that she began preparing her to study with Wanda Landowska in Paris. But the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 meant those plans would never come to pass. In 1942, when she was 15, Růžičková was sent with her family to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt, where her father and grandfather died. Later, she was transported to Auchswitz-Birkenau and then to the death camp at Bergen-Belsen, which was eventually liberated by the British Army. In all, Růžičková survived three years of malnutrition, forced labour, a host of diseases and the constant threat of the gas chambers.
Zuzana Růžičková 1927 – 2017. Photo © Warner Classics & Erato/Martin Divisek
After the war she returned to music studies, practicing up to 12 hours every day to make up for the lost years and to adapt her hands – badly damaged by digging and brickwork – to playing again. In 1948, another anti-Semitic, totalitarian and regime came to power in Czechoslovakia: The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Růžičková refused to join the Party and for the next 40 years she and her family would suffer constant harassment and surveillance.
In 1956, Růžičková gained international attention when she won the ARD International Music Competition in Munich, playing a keyboard concerto by Georg Benda and performing both the solo and orchestral parts herself after Rafael Kubelík, a political exile from Czechoslovakia, refused to perform with an artist representing the country.
Růžičková went on to perform internationally, permitted to do so by the Czechoslovak government, for whom she was a source of foreign income and cultural prestige. A critic in The Times praised her “huge vitality and momentum” in a performance at London’s Wigmore Hall in 1968, referring also to “a touch of wantonness in her treatment of the music.” In 1965, Růžičková began a decade-long project with French record label Erato, which would see her record all of Bach’s keyboard works, becoming the first person to do so.
These records were re-released in January of this year to celebrate her 90th birthday. Half a century after the originals were produced, with a wealth of historically informed Bach burgeoning in the intervening years, BBC Radio 3 presenter Rob Cowan wrote, “there’s a sense of rightness to Zuzana Růžičková’s Bach that transcends fads and fashions and the deadening impact of scholarly dogma.” Getzels Gordon Productions also released a documentary, Zuzana: Music is Life, in which Růžičková tells her story in her own words.
Růžičková ended her performing career in 2006, the same year as the death of her husband, composer Viktor Kalabis. As a teacher, she was instrumental in training new generation of harpsichordists, and numbered among her many students the Iranian-born ‘harpsichord ninja’ Mahan Esfahani.
Růžičková’s long list of honours and awards included France’s Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and the Czech Medal of Merit.