Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Concerto No. 2 in f.
No. 17 in b?; No. 25 in b; No. 31 in A?.
No. 1 in b?; No. 9 in B; No. 19 in e.
No. 3 in a (2 versions); No. 4 in F; No. 6 in D?; No. 8 in A?; No. 14 in e.
Polonaise No. 3 in A. Fantasy in f. Fantasy-Impromptu. Etude in F,
class="ARIAL12"> op. 10/8.
Impromptu No. 1 in A?. Piano Sonata No. 3.
Raoul von Koczalski (pn);
Sergiu Celibidache, cond;
MUSIC & ARTS 1261 (2 CDs: 140:21)
I’m sure that I’m not the only one who, seeing this release, thought, “Raoul
” It turns out that Armand Georg Raoul Koczalski (1884–1948) was a Polish pianist who spent his entire career in Europe—primarily Germany—despite many unsuccessful attempts to lure him to the U.S. Thus he is even more forgotten than another Eastern European, violinist Bronislaw Huberman, who played America many times during the very decades when Koczalski stuck to Germany (which is where, and when, the “von” was added to his name). Indeed, he is so little known in this country that even his year of birth is disputed. This CD booklet, and that of Ward Marston who is reissuing all of the pianist’s 78-rpm discs, give the year of his birth as 1885, but Wikipedia and answers.com insist on 1884, and other sites such as images.mitrasites.com, nme.com, and zomobo.net muddy up the matter by giving
1884 and 1885. I go with the earlier year.
Perhaps the one reference to Koczalski that some (but not all) Americans might recognize was a very negative criticism of his playing in Artur Rubinstein’s autobiography, but it makes sense that Rubinstein would do so for two reasons. First, Rubinstein was a Polish Jew, meaning that he suffered discrimination even within his own country, and could not have been happy about Koczalski’s decision to remain in Nazi Germany as a performer (even though Hitler later interred him in a camp until after the war as a “foreign national”). And second, Rubinstein was in the vanguard of modern, clean Chopin playing, occasionally using rubato (a necessary ingredient in Chopin, regardless of era) but eschewing the numerous
rallentandos, ritards, accelerandos,
and rhythmically out-of-sync playing that Koczalski employed as a matter of course, at least in Chopin. Indeed, these features abound in these late German radio recordings that were later used for broadcast. But to explain why he is still regarded by many as an authentic Chopin interpreter, one must turn the clock back to 1890.
In that year, as a mere six-year-old studying with Liszt pupil Ludwig Marek, Koczalski was highly praised by both Eduard Hanslick and Anton Rubinstein, but in 1892 he switched teachers to one of Chopin’s star pupils, Karol Mikuli (1819–97). For four consecutive summers, he studied with Mikuli and, as he later wrote, “It was no trifle; each lesson lasted two full hours, and these were
lessons; I was never permitted to work alone. Strictly based on Chopin’s method, his teaching was so revolutionary that even today it commands all my admiration. Nothing was neglected: posture at the piano, fingertips, use of the pedal,
phrase structure, the singing tone of a musical line, dynamic contrasts, rhythm, and above all the care for authenticity with which Chopin’s works must be approached. Here there is no camouflage, no cheap rubato, and no languishing or useless contortions.” Despite the extraordinary freedom of rhythm and treatment of line one hears in his performances, he was accepted—at least in Europe—as the gold standard among Chopin interpreters. French scholar Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, for one, wrote that “Among Chopin’s numerous disciples-by-proxy, Koczalski undoubtedly appears to be the one to have preserved this tradition most purely.” (No wonder Artur Rubinstein was incensed.) Yet in addition to ignoring England and America, Koczalski also took a laissez-faire attitude toward recording. He didn’t make his first record until 1924, by which time he was already 40, and in his studio recordings, according to the liner notes for this album, “accuracy is occasionally a problem,” yet in these late 1945 and 1948 recordings, he is technically flawless. Go figure!
Listening to Koczalski, and considering seriously all the different things he learned from Mikuli, who was evidently trying to pass on Chopin’s style to his young charge, one hears a metronomic left hand that almost never wavers in time-beating but a remarkably fluid right hand, even apparently willful in its headlong or held-back lead lines. Forget Rubinstein; I can imagine B. H. Haggin tearing Koczalski to shreds. “His willful distortions of the musical line include shocking fermatas and
not in the score, in addition to his hands not being always together rhythmically, all of which represents a gross misrepresentation of Chopin’s intentions.” Ah, but who would know Chopin’s intentions better than Chopin himself? And lacking Chopin’s own presence, would not one of his star pupils—who studied with him not as a seven-year-old prodigy but as a mature, adult pianist (Mikuli was 30 years old when Chopin died)—not have been able to retain what such a great musician told him? Another Chopin pupil, Wilhelm von Lenz, is quoted in the booklet thus: “The left hand … is the choirmaster: It mustn’t relent or bend. It’s a clock. Do with the right hand what you want, and can.”
In addition to the fact that Koczalski actually uses
pedal than did most famous Chopin interpreters (including Paderewski, de Pachmann, and Cortot among the old-timers, Rubinstein, Arrau, and Katsaris among the middle-era or more recent performers), there is an incredible variety of rhythmic subtlety and nuance in his playing. Almost no two bars are in
the same rhythm—listen, especially, to the “Military” Polonaise or the Fantasy-Impromptu. As annotator Jonathan D. Bellman put it in the notes, “Chopin’s explanation of the contrametric variety would apply equally well (with certain stylistic adjustments) to a singer collaborating with a jazz combo.” Listeners, then, need to keep this in mind when hearing Koczalski’s performances. (One thing I find interesting: Two pianists not always admired for their Chopin, Horowitz and Kapell, produced similar but not identical results in their right-left-hand coordination, use of less pedal, and solid rhythm played against a free-styled right hand.) I’m sure it also helps that these recordings, made on tape at a time when most British and American companies were still using wax 78-rpm masters, are far less boxy and reveal more nuance, especially more nuance than Koczalski’s commercial discs for Polydor, a company notorious even within Germany for having the boxiest, least realistic sound of that era.
One thing that may or may not be cleared up here is the age-old question of whether Chopin’s music should be played in a wispy, ethereal manner or with rhythmic and tensile strength. Even before discovering Koczalski, I had heard for most of my life that Chopin did
always play in a dreamy manner, that despite his employing obvious
in certain passages that were played with delicacy, the overall manner of his playing was strong. This is how Koczalski plays here. There is, for instance, rubato galore in the Nocturne No. 9, but the
rhythmic core has strength and propulsion. In the famed “Minute” Waltz, Koczalski is almost unbelievably fast in the quick passages, yet holds the top of the phrases with an out-of-tempo fermata, and in the concluding bars of the theme statement his left hand actually runs slightly ahead of the right. This is virtuosic brinksmanship of the highest order, but in my view it is also tastefully done, not grossly distorted.
In opposition to all of this, there are moments when Koczalski is extraordinarily straightforward, such as
No. 1 or the first movement of the Sonata No. 3, which sounds more like Dinu Lipatti’s reading than Shura Cherkassky’s elegant, lingering style. But like any truly creative musician, one can hear Koczalski as well as Chopin saying, as Jimmy Durante did, “You can’t restrict me in these things!” The October 1948 performance of Waltz No. 3 is rather different in many subtle ways from the February 1948 version, for instance, and one imagines that if other alternate takes existed they would show similar differences. I, for one, accept what he is doing as stylistically authentic for three reasons: first, his teacher knew Chopin’s intentions; secondly, Mikuli’s stated concept of Chopin style was consistent with that of other Chopin pupils such as von Lenz and Georges Mathias; and third, even such a scrupulous musician as Pierre Monteux accepted Edouard Colonne’s marked-up score of the
which Colonne said he notated based on performances conducted by Berlioz himself, which often depart from the printed score in tempo and phrasing. No truly great interpreter plays anything the same way twice, and that even goes for the man most responsible for killing off the lingering style in music, Arturo Toscanini.
Many items on CD 2 have surprisingly boxy sound compared to CD 1; possibly those tapes didn’t survive in as good condition (oxidation can certainly occur if they weren’t protected against atmospheric conditions); yet the Second Piano Concerto, conducted with equally fluid rhythm by Sergiu Celibidache, is astoundingly clear (listen to the winds and soft high string playing in particular). Again, and I cannot stress this enough in words though words are sometimes inadequate, the rubato and
style described above in some of these pieces is not strictly or consistently applied, even in the concerto; some passages are quite straightforward, only to be followed by others that aren’t. Apparently, the only consistency in the “true Chopin style” was its fluidity in actual practice. Oddly, despite the tensile strength of Koczalski’s playing in this concerto, it remains in our memory as gentler and more elegant than the performances of not only Rubinstein but also such modern pianists as Lang Lang or Sa Chen.
Since I was not previously familiar with Koczalski, it was indeed very helpful that Music & Arts indicated that the Fantasy-Impromptu at the end of CD 1 (the only 1945 recording) and most of CD 2 were previously issued in 2006 on Archiphon WU-063, so if you happen to have that disc you may or may not wish to acquire the other performances (the rest of CD 1 and the Etude No. 8, Impromptu No. 1, Sonata No. 3, and
on CD 2) that were never previously released. It all depends on how much Koczalski you want in your collection. If nothing else, this set makes fascinating comparisons with any other performances you may own of these various pieces. It may drive modern-day critics crazy to hear such things and accept them as authentic, but the alternative, which is to consider them inauthentic, makes less sense to me. If you are someone who insists on historically informed performances, you simply can’t dismiss Koczalski’s approach to Chopin so easily.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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