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 Obituary  Zuzana Růžičková (1927-2017)

Zuzana Růžičková (1927-2017)The great Czech harpsichordist Zuzana Růžičková, who survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and went on to become the first musician to record JS Bach’s complete keyboard works on the harpsichord, has died in Prague aged 90.

Born in Plzeň on 14th January 1927 to a Jewish mother and atheist father, Růžičková began learning the piano at the age of nine and displayed a particular affinity with Bach from an early stage in her studies; plans to study in Paris with the renowned harpsichordist Wanda Landowska never came to fruition due to the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis in 1939. Three years later, the fifteen-year-old Růžičková and her family were sent to Theresienstadt, where despite enforced labour she managed to pursue her interest in music through events staged by the residents of the ‘model community’ (Růžičková would later become a passionate activist for the Terezin Initiative, a platform for the camp’s former inmates). Following the death of her father, Růžičková and her mother were transported first to Auschwitz and then onto Bergen-Belsen; when the camp was liberated in 1945 she weighed just five stones and had suffered bubonic plague, malaria and typhus as well as severe damage to her hands from enforced hard labour.

Determined to pursue a career in music despite the unimaginable physical and emotional trauma she’d suffered, Růžičková resumed her studies as soon as her health would permit; she was admitted to Prague’s Academy of Performing Arts two years after the liberation, where she later met her husband, the composer Viktor Kalabis. Though anti-Semitic persecution continued to dog her career under the Communist regime (her refusal to join the Party, coupled with her Jewish heritage, meant that her movements were closely monitored and restrictions placed on her teaching and performing activities), by the mid-1950s she had begun to make her mark internationally following a major competition-victory in Munich; in the early 1960s she began a series of acclaimed Bach recordings on Supraphon, and between 1965 and 1973 she worked on the first-ever set of Bach’s complete keyboard works on the harpsichord (released by Erato in 1975). Though Bach was a central presence in her life, her wide repertoire also included much twentieth-century music and she maintained a busy career as a chamber musician, with notable collaborators including Josef Suk, János Starker, Václav Neumann, and the Prague Chamber Soloists (which she co-founded in 1962). Her many awards and honours include a Supraphon Golden Disc, a Diapason d’Or for her recording of Henry Purcell, and the title of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 2004.

Růžičková retired from public performance in 2004, and became an increasingly passionate advocate for both the memorialisation of musicians who died in the Holocaust and emerging new talent in early music – her roster of pupils included Christopher Hogwood and Mahan Esfahani. To commemorate her ninetieth birthday earlier this year, she was the subject of a documentary entitled Zuzana: Music is Life which explored her extraordinary legacy and the role which music (and Bach in particular) played in her literal and psychological survival.

Zuzana Růžičková - a selected discography

Bach: The Complete Keyboard Works

Zuzana Růžičková (harpsichord)

'There’s a sense of rightness to Zuzana Růžičková’s Bach that transcends fads and fashions and the deadening impact of scholarly dogma.' (Gramophone)

Available Format: CD

Bach: Harpsichord Concertos

Zuzana Růžičková (harpsichord)

'Ruzicková plays a lovely-sounding, multi-manual instrument that provides a surprising wealth of tone color. She's excellently balanced against the richly Romantic string orchestra.' (Classics Today)

Available Format: CD

Domenico Scarlatti: Harpsichord Sonatas

Zuzana Růžičková (harpsichord)

'This recital is just plain stunning, both in its sheer sonic splendor as well as in Ruzicková’s technical bravura. Especially for those listeners getting started on this endlessly inventive composer’s keyboard works, this disc is essential.' (Classics Today)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Music of the English Virginalists

Zuzana Růžičková (harpsichord)

'The impressiveness of Růžičkova's technique is as undoubtable as is her overt affection for this music—and the tenuousness of her grasp of its style and spirit. There is much to enjoy and admire in this recording.' (Gramophone)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Hommage a Zuzana Růžičkova

Zuzana Růžičková (harpsichord)

'Each is a gem in its own way, exploring and exploiting the harpsichord sound..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)

Available Format: CD

Harpsichord Music from England, Spain & Portugal

Zuzana Růžičková (harpsichord)

'The music has withstood the test of time, demonstrating that even as musical knowledge of harpsichord performance practice has evolved, her work was both an important part of its development and, moreover, still sounds wonderfully fresh even today.' (Fanfare)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC