The Complete Raoul von Koczalski, Vol. 2

53016-2 (3 CDs) ( CD) | $ 54.00


The Complete Raoul von Koczalski, Vol. 2
Raoul von Koczalski was born in 1885 and at the age of seven began studying with Chopin-student Karol Mikuli. The first impression of Koczalski’s playing is often one of the fluency and grace of his execution, coupled with his subtlety of phrasing and smooth legato, but what one is often left with is his use of rubato. This aspect of his playing has given rise to debate about Chopin’s musical intentions and has sparked both criticism and admiration of Koczalski’s playing; it will delight many and dissuade some, while asking all to consider if this is the definitive interpretation of Chopin. This three CD-set is the second and final volume of the complete pre-war recordings of this controversial pianist. It is almost entirely devoted to Chopin, including recordings of the complete etudes, preludes, and ballades.

CD 1 (77:58)


Recorded Milan, ca. September 1930

1.Gavotte in G Minor, from English Suite No. 3, BWV 808 (Bach)2:35
 (H-67738) Odeon O-4761b 
2.German Dance in B-flat, K. 600, No. 3 (Mozart)1:31
 (H-67736) Odeon O-25615b 
3.German Dance in F, K. 602, No. 2 (Mozart)1:12
 (H-67736) Odeon O-25615b 
4.Prelude in A, Op. 28, No. 70:48
 (H-67740) Odeon O-4761a 
5.Waltz in D-flat, Op. 64, No. 1 “Minute”1:49
 (H-67740) Odeon O-4761a 
6.Prelude in D-flat, Op. 28, No. 15 “Raindrop”4:39
 (H- 2-58050) Homocord D-12035a 
7.Berceuse in D-flat, Op. 574:05
 (H-2-58051) Homocord D-12035b 
8.Etude in G-flat, Op. 10, No. 5 “Black Keys”1:38
 (H-67731) Odeon O-25615a 
9.Etude in G-flat, Op. 25, No. 9 “Butterfly”1:08
 (H-67731) Odeon O-25615a 
10.Etude in F Minor, Op. 25, No. 21:19
 (H-67735) unpublished  
11.Etude in F, Op. 25, No. 31:37
 (H-67735) unpublished  
12.Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 35 – 3rd movement (Funeral March)6:01
 (H-67732 and H-67733) Homocord 4-3955 

Electrola/His Master’s Voice

Recorded Berlin, 17 March 1937

Three Ecossaises, Op. 72, No. 3
13.No. 1 in D0:53
14.No. 2 in G0:26
15.No. 3 in D-flat0:41
 (0RA1906-2) HMV DA4431 
16.Mazurka in F, Op. 68, No. 31:18
 (0RA1906-2) HMV DA4430 
17.Nocturne in F-sharp, Op. 15, No. 23:30
 (0RA1907-1) HMV DA4430 
18.Polonaise in A-flat, Op. 536:15
 (0RA1908-1 and 0RA1909-1) HMV DA4431 
19.Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 318:39
 (2RA1910-1 and 2RA1911-2) HMV DB4474  

Deutsche Grammophon/Polydor

Recorded Berlin

20.Berceuse in D-flat, Op. 574:19
 28 June 1938; (795 ½ GE8) 67246A  
21.Impromptu in F-sharp, Op. 365:00
 29 June 1938; (804 ½ GE8) 67248A 
22.Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-sharp Minor, Op. 664:54
 29 June 1938; (800 ½ GE8) 67248B 
23.Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9, No. 2 (with authentic variants)4:31
 28 June 1938; (796 ½ GE8) 67246B  
24.Nocturne in B, Op. 32, No. 14:32
 17 November 1939; (1300-4 GS9) 67534B 
25.Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48, No. 14:39
 17 November 1939; (1301-2 GS9) 67534A 

CD 2 (75:29)

Deutsche Grammophon/Polydor

Recorded Berlin (Continued)

Twelve Etudes, Op. 10

Recorded 29 June 1938

1.No. 1 in C2:01
 (812 ½ GE8) 67263B 
2.No. 2 in A Minor1:25
 (808 ½ GE8) 67263A 
3.No. 3 in E3:38
 (805 ½ GE8) 67262A 
4.No. 4 in C-sharp Minor2:10
 (809 ½ GE8) 67262B 
5.No. 5 in G-flat “Black Keys”1:36
 (808 ½ GE8) 67263A 
6.No. 6 in E-flat Minor2:33
 (809 ½ GE8) 67262B 
7.No. 7 in C1:33
 (808 ½ GE8) 67263A 
8.No. 8 in F2:35
 (811 ¾ GE8) 67264A 
9.No. 9 in F Minor1:49
 (803 ½ GE8) 67264B 
10.No. 10 in A-flat2:18
 (811 ¾ GE8) 67264A 
11.No. 11 in E-flat 2:11
 (812 ½ GE8) 67263B 
12.No. 12 in C Minor “Revolutionary”2:40
 (803 ½ GE8) 67264B 
Twelve Etudes, Op. 25
13.No. 5 in E Minor3:08
 29 June 1938; (801 ½ GE8) 67243A 
14.No. 2 in F Minor1:22
 29 June 1938; (801 ½ GE8) 67243A 
15.No. 3 in F1:40
 29 June 1938; (807 ½ GE8) 67245A 
16.No. 4 in A Minor1:49
 29 June 1938; (807 ½ GE8) 67245A 
17.No. 5 in E Minor3:08
 29 June 1938; (801 ½ GE8) 67243A 
18.No. 6 in G-sharp Minor “Thirds”1:52
 29 June 1938; (810 ¾ GE8) 67245B 
19.No. 7 in C-sharp Minor “Cello”4:36
 28 June 1938; (794 ½ GE8) 67242A 
20.No. 8 in D-flat “Sixths”1:21
 29 June 1938; (806 ½ GE8) 67243B 
21.No. 9 in G-flat “Butterfly”1:00
 29 June 1938; (806 ½ GE8) 67243B 
22.No. 10 in B Minor “Octave”4:05
 29 June 1938; (814 ½ GE8) 67242B 
23.No. 11 in A Minor “Winter Wind”3:23
 29 June 1938; (813 ½ GE8) 67244A 
24.No. 12 in C Minor “Ocean”3:00
 29 June 1938; (810 ¾ GE8) 67245B 
Three Etudes without opus number (“Nouvelle”)
25.No. 3 in A-flat1:28
26.No. 2 in D-flat1:30
27.No. 1 in F Minor1:39
 29 June 1938; (802 ¾ GE8) 67244B 
28.Waltz in E-flat, Op. 18 “Grande Valse Brillante”4:11
 12 June 1939; (1167-2 GS9) 67515A 
29.Waltz in A-flat, Op. 34, No. 14:32
 28 June 1938; (798 ½ GE8) 67247A 
30.Waltz in A Minor, Op. 34, No. 24:22
 12 June 1939; (1168-2 GS9) 67515B  
31.Waltz in F, Op. 34, No. 32:10
 10 June 1939; (1162-2 GS9) 67533A 

CD 3 (79:22)

Deutsche Grammophon/Polydor

Recorded Berlin

1.Waltz in D-flat, Op. 64, No. 1 “Minute”1:34
 10 June 1939; (1162-2 GS9) 67533A 
2.Waltz in A-flat, Op. 64, No. 32:19
 10 June 1939; (1163-2 GS9) 67533B 
3.Waltz in A-flat, Op. 69, No. 14:01
 28 June 1938; (797 ½ GE8) 67247B 
4.Waltz in G-flat, Op. 70, No. 12:12
 10 June 1939; (1163-2 GS9) 67533B 
Twenty-four Preludes, Op. 28
5.No. 1 in C0:37
 10 June 1939; (1153-2 GS9) 67505A 
6.No. 2 in A Minor1:25
 10 June 1939; (1153-2 GS9) 67505A 
7.No. 3 in G0:56
 10 June 1939; (1153-2 GS9) 67505A 
8.No. 4 in E Minor1:19
 10 June 1939; (1153-2 GS9) 67505A 
9.No. 5 in D0:38
 10 June 1939; (1154-2 GS9) 67505B 
10.No. 6 in B Minor1:33
 10 June 1939; (1154-2 GS9) 67505B 
11.No. 7 in A0:38
 10 June 1939; (1154-2 GS9) 67505B 
12.No. 8 in F-sharp Minor1:41
 10 June 1939; (1154-2 GS9) 67505B 
13.No. 9 in E1:07
 10 June 1939; (1155-2 GS9) 67506A 
14.No. 10 in C-sharp Minor0:26
 10 June 1939; (1155-2 GS9) 67506A 
15.No. 11 in B0:43
 10 June 1939; (1155-2 GS9) 67506A 
16.No. 12 in G-sharp Minor1:08
 10 June 1939; (1155-2 GS9) 67506A 
17.No. 13 in F-sharp2:39
 10 June 1939; (1156-2 GS9) 67506B 
18.No. 14 in E-flat Minor0:33
 10 June 1939; (1156-2 GS9) 67506B 
19.No. 15 in D-flat4:29
 10 June 1939; (1157-2 GS9) 67507A 
20.No. 16 in B-flat Minor1:14
 10 June 1939; (1158-2 GS9) 67507B 
21.No. 17 in A-flat3:09
 10 June 1939; (1158-2 GS9) 67507B 
22.No. 18 in F Minor0:59
 10 June 1939; (1159-2 GS9) 67508A 
23.No. 19 in E-flat1:21
 10 June 1939; (1159-2 GS9) 67508A 
24.No. 20 in C Minor1:15
 10 June 1939; (1159-2 GS9) 67508A 
25.No. 21 in B-flat1:40
 10 June 1939; (1160-2 GS9) 67508B 
26.No. 22 in G Minor0:52
 10 June 1939; (1160-2 GS9) 67508B 
27.No. 23 in F0:44
 10 June 1939; (1160-2 GS9) 67508B 
28.No. 24 in D Minor2:45
 12 June 1939; (1166-2 GS9) 67509A 
29.Prelude without opus in A-flat0:57
 12 June 1939; (1166-2 GS9) 67509A 
30.Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 453:56
 10 June 1939; (1161-2 GS9) 67509B 
31.Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 238:35
 17 November 1939; (1302-2 GS9 and 1303-2 GS9) 67528 
32.Ballade No. 2 in F, Op. 386:27
 19 June 1939; (1180-1 GS9 and 1181-4 GS9) 67531 
33.Ballade No. 3 in A-flat, Op. 477:09
 19 June 1939 and 17 November 1939; (1176-2 GS9 and 1304-1 GS9) 67529 
34.Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 528:22
 19 June 1939; (1178-2 GS9 and 1179-2 GS9) 67530 

Raoul von Koczalski’s recorded performances have been the topic of much discussion in recent years, especially among those involved in the field of historic performance practices, because of his particular pedagogical lineage. A “grand-pupil” of Chopin, via his teacher Karol Mikuli, his lessons supposedly provided him with a connection to Chopin, and this has led to considerable speculation as to how closely his interpretations might resemble Chopin’s own. Koczalski’s extensive recorded legacy, with its strong emphasis on the works of Chopin, offers plenty of evidence for examination—but various ancillary factors must be kept in mind.

Mikuli (1821–1897) began his studies with Chopin in 1844. These continued on a regular basis for four years, during which Mikuli was often allowed to observe Chopin’s lessons with other pupils. He then performed concerts throughout eastern Europe and eventually settled in Lwów. From 1858 onward he served as director of that city’s conservatory, teaching piano, harmony, and counterpoint. He also prepared a comprehensive edition of Chopin’s works, which appeared in 1880 under the imprint of the Leipzig publisher Kistner. (This edition was subsequently reprinted by Schirmer in the United States and more recently by Dover.) It remains in use and is still considered an authoritative source. Mikuli based his work on the original French editions along with his recollections of Chopin’s teaching. In a fairly substantial preface, Mikuli describes many aspects of Chopin’s “highly developed technique” and the way in which his playing “was always within bounds, chaste, polished and at times even severely reserved.” He also emphasized how “Chopin’s attention was always directed to teaching correct phrasing” with an insistence upon tonal beauty and liquidity along with his abhorrence of arbitrary, undisciplined handling of rhythm and tempo.

Koczalski was eight years old and already well-known as a prodigy when he came to Mikuli for lessons in 1892. These took place on a daily basis during the summer months each year through 1895. Forty-four years had elapsed since Mikuli had worked with Chopin, and thirty years would pass before Koczalski would make his first recordings. We cannot doubt that Mikuli was dedicated to perpetuating his personal idea of Chopin’s musical and pianistic philosophy through his pupils. Although Koczalski had no further instruction after leaving Mikuli, he certainly had numerous opportunities to encounter all the leading Chopin interpreters of the day—players who represented a wide variety of styles, schools, and traditions. Koczalski, however, cannily built his career on the basis of his claim to a direct “Chopin connection,” and he capitalized on that fact to the fullest possible extent, always acknowledging the positive influence of Mikuli’s teaching.

In 1936 Koczalski published his own commentaries on Chopin’s music with many references to Mikuli. “To this day,” he wrote, “Mikuli’s veneration of Chopin, his seriousness in everything about music and his respect for healthy, rhythmically restrained pianism has remained my model.” He goes on to describe the major elements of his teacher’s ideology. Unfortunately this volume has yet to appear in a complete English translation.

There are several factors that place Koczalski apart from his contemporaries, even those of Polish origin or those with other impressive pedigrees. While Moriz Rosenthal and Aleksander Michałowski were also Mikuli pupils, with both producing notable recordings of Chopin and other composers, Rosenthal certainly came under the powerful influence of Liszt as well as Liszt’s disciple Rafael Joseffy, while Michałowski worked extensively with Ignaz Moscheles and Carl Tausig (also a Liszt product) before coming to Mikuli. All other pianists of the time had complex influences on their playing, while Koczalski, having had no other teachers after the age of twelve, occupies a more isolated position. This fact tends to prevent any direct comparisons, and there were no other students of Mikuli who made recordings.

Defining Characteristics

An examination of Koczalski’s pre-war recordings, representing about six hours’ total playing time, reveals several clearly-defined elements that help establish his approach to Chopin interpretation—supposedly as conveyed by the teaching of Mikuli:

A Consistent Respect for Chopin’s Text. With only a couple of exceptions, Koczalski adheres to the notes of the score as published. This is remarkable only because of the practice of many of Koczalski’s contemporaries, who freely indulged in deviations such as bass octave doublings for greater sonority, reinforced endings (for example: interlocking octaves), extensions of passages beyond Chopin’s keyboard range, and so forth. The Chopin recordings of such noted players as Friedman, Moiseiwitsch, Rosenthal, Busoni, and numerous others all contain various emendations of this sort—often effective, to be sure, but a practice deliberately avoided by Koczalski. Beyond the actual notes, however, it is in the exploitation of both the rhythmic and dynamic spheres of a given work that a pianist’s margin of personal interpretation lies. Koczalski’s performances encompass a fairly wide range of freedom in these areas, but they rarely venture into willfulness. One rather dramatic deviation from Chopin’s written dynamic scheme occurs in the “Funeral March” from the Sonata, Op. 35 (CD 1, Track 12). Here Koczalski is among those who follow the examples of Anton Rubinstein and Sergei Rachmaninoff, building a crescendo to fortissimo just before the quiet trio section, resuming the march fortissimo, then gradually receding. The effect, as has been often remarked, is that of a funeral cortège approaching from afar and slowly fading into the distance.

A Consistent Emphasis on Tonal Values. The Polydor recordings, as well as the three Electrola discs from 1937, were particularly successful in capturing the rounded, pellucid singing tone that Koczalski cultivated to an extraordinary degree. Regardless of texture or technical demands, Koczalski’s sonority never becomes harsh or disagreeable. While this was a characteristic of all players of the same era, Koczalski combined his singing legato with relatively spare pedaling and an admirable concern for clarity, thus imparting an unusual quality of transparency to his piano sound.

A Moderate Indulgence in Dislocation. “Dislocation,” as the term is now applied to piano playing, refers to the practice of playing one hand slightly before or after the other (i.e., de-synchronization), as well as to the arpeggiation of chords that are not indicated to be broken. Much has been written about dislocation as either—depending on one’s perspective—an old-fashioned mannerism or a valid expressive device. It can be heard to a greater or lesser extent, chiefly in lyrical sections and works, from most pianists trained in the nineteenth century and is most prominent, perhaps, in the interpretations of Vladimir de Pachmann and Ignacy Paderewski. Because the habit is easy to adopt, and in some cases may be the result of faulty technical schooling or poor musical taste, it has been roundly condemned in recent times. On the other hand, it has the advantage of throwing melodic lines into higher relief and avoiding the mechanical sound of constantly precise alignment of vertical elements. Although this practice was clearly in decline during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (i.e., Koczalski’s formative years), it never completely disappeared, and dislocation can still be heard in the playing of such diverse recent interpreters as Earl Wild, Rudolf Serkin, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, and Ivan Moravec, to name but four. As will be noted below, Koczalski does not apply this practice across the board in his recordings, but only in certain situations.

A Resistance to Ostentation and Technical Display. Koczalski’s mechanical command, while it could not be called impeccable, is more than sufficient to handle the challenges of Chopin’s writing, particularly in the etudes. At the hands of some players over the years, the etudes have often been used as bravura vehicles. Koczalski, again pursuing a path of moderation, avoids extremes of tempo and dynamics, focusing instead on a meaningful shaping and shading of each etude.

A Generally Disciplined Handling of Rubato. The subject of rubato, in the generic sense of freedom and flexibility of tempo and rhythm, is enormous and complex. (The recent study by Richard Hudson [Oxford University Press, 1994] is a valuable exploration of the topic.) Many Chopin interpreters, even into the twenty-first century, have carried rhythmic license to an extreme degree, perhaps believing that to “simply play as you feel” is justification for such liberties. Koczalski, however, would not have escaped the severe discipline of Mikuli regarding permissible, and idiomatic, employment of rubato in Chopin’s writing. The basis for convincing rubato should always be a specific musical purpose, such as a highlighting of harmonic and melodic tension, or emphasizing an inner voice, or similar subtle details. Koczalski’s awareness of these possibilities, and their limits, is notable throughout his recorded legacy.

The Recordings

During the 1924–1939 period, Koczalski continued to maintain his reputation as a Chopin interpreter, especially in central Europe. The Polydor label, based in Berlin, engaged him for a remarkably extensive series of discs even while the label was also producing recordings by Claudio Arrau, Michael von Zadora, Franz Josef Hirt, Alexander Brailowsky, Alexander Borovsky, Walter Rehberg, Wilhelm Kempff, and Eduard Erdmann. It is likely that, had the atrocities of the war not intervened, Koczalski would have continued his Chopin survey beyond the complete sets of etudes, preludes, and ballades that are the major items reissued here.

This present volume completes Marston’s edition of all of Koczalski’s recordings through 1939. (Volume One—Marston 52063-2—covers his 1924–1928 Polydor discs.) Included here is a hitherto-unknown Homocord of the Chopin Berceuse and “Raindrop” prelude that was discovered recently on a German auction list (CD 1, Tracks 6 and 7). The war years apparently did not see any recording activity by Koczalski, but from mid-1945 until his death in November 1948 there is a substantial body of studio material from German and Polish radio stations as well as twelve sides recorded for the small Polish Mewa label. The broadcast performances feature some repertoire beyond Chopin, with Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and several others included. Although valuable as further documentation of Koczalski’s pianism, it is evident that his post-war recordings represent something of a decline, many of them revealing a less sharply-focused atmosphere and occasional technical failings. The Chopin repertoire from this period (including the F Minor Concerto conducted by Sergiu Celibidache) can be found on Music & Arts CD-1261, and further material has been issued on Archiphon ARC-119/20. Transfers of the Mewa 78s are on Selene 9801.37. (One cautionary note: an alleged Koczalski performance of the Chopin E Minor Concerto, again with Celibidache, appeared in the mid-1980s on a cassette released by William Barrington-Coupe’s Concert Artist label. Consistent with Barrington-Coupe’s later fraudulent CD series attributed to his wife Joyce Hatto, this “Koczalski” recording has proved to be spurious.)

The one Koczalski recording that has generated the most discussion by far is his 1938 Polydor version of the Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2, “with authentic Chopin variants” (CD 1, Track 23). The added embellishments and other alterations to Chopin’s melodic writing are said to have been notated by Mikuli after hearing Chopin himself play this Nocturne. (The ornamentation can also be traced to other reliable sources.) Curiously, Koczalski plays only a few variants in his earlier recording of this work (included in the first Marston volume), and he omits them entirely in his late recording for Mewa. Furthermore, Mikuli makes no mention of them in the Nocturne volume of his complete Chopin edition; instead he published a separate edition of Op. 9, No. 2 containing the variants.

In light of Chopin’s well-known admiration for bel canto singing, especially from such artists of his day as Guiditta Pasta in the operas of Bellini and Donizetti, it is not difficult to trace the inspiration for the fioritura and melodic ornamentation that are found especially in his nocturnes. We also have reliable accounts of Chopin privately playing nocturnes by John Field and improvising embellishments to enhance Field’s relatively sparse textures. Perhaps the variants in Op. 9, No. 2 originated as a spontaneous jeu d’esprit on Chopin’s part, but in any case they suggest opportunities for creative interpreters to follow Chopin’s practice in similar contexts. (One later example: Theodor Leschetizky’s embellishments to the Nocturne, Op. 27, No. 2, preserved on a Welte reproducing piano roll.)

Although Koczalski may not provide a consistent level through all twenty-seven etudes (few pianists have done so), there are a number of highlights worth mentioning. He introduces a joyous, playful element into the coruscating figurations of Op. 10, No. 8, and he characterizes Op. 10, No. 10 with a moderate tempo that allows a singing line while making clear the varied articulation and rhythmic displacements of the right hand part. Two showpieces—Op. 10, Nos. 4 and 5—are projected with attention to shape and color rather than speed and bravura. In the elegiac Op. 25, No. 7 Koczalski lends transparency to Chopin’s two-voiced polyphonic texture through a slight displacement of the hands, but not to the extent found in Paderewski’s two recordings of this etude. The third and fourth etudes of Op. 25 are ideally proportioned, allowing us to overlook a rather brisk, perfunctory treatment of the “Aeolian Harp” (Op. 25, No. 1) and a cautious run-through of No. 8. The challenging Etude in Thirds (No. 6) is superb, but Koczalski’s dry, under-pedaled Octave and “Winter Wind” etudes (Nos. 10 and 11) are disappointing (the latter contains some provocative departures from Chopin’s written dynamics). There is a rare textual alteration at the end of the latter work, where Koczalski extends the upward scale by an additional octave for greater effect. In the A-flat Nouvelle Etude, many may prefer the agogic colorations of Rosenthal that add a dimension missing from Koczalski’s rather hasty, matter-of-fact version.

A similar pattern of unevenness can be found in Koczalski’s complete set of preludes, which includes the two separate, additional pieces (Op. 45 and Op. Posth.) which at that time were often neglected by pianists. In Op. 28, Koczalski excels in No. 11, capturing its charm and delicacy perfectly, as well as in pieces like Nos. 3, 10, and 23 that require lightness and fluency. Many of the slower, more contemplative Preludes (such as Nos. 2, 4, 6, 13, and 15) are delivered with a mild degree of de-synchronization between melody and accompaniment. In these instances Koczalski prefers forward impetus rather than the more deliberate, dirge-like pace often encountered. Somewhat less impressive is the turbulent No. 8, where Koczalski’s indistinct, poorly coordinated left hand is a liability.

The four ballades offer a chance to examine Koczalski’s handling of larger, more dramatic structures. Those seeking the highest degree of inflammatory rhetoric in Nos. 1 and 4 will need to turn elsewhere, as Koczalski prefers a milder narrative climate in these works, yet always presenting the melodic elements with a rich vocal emphasis (see especially the opening material of both works.) Temperamentally his affinities seem best suited to the more lyrical No. 3, even if it does not build as logically as it should to its final peroration. The most striking aspect of Koczalski’s Ballade No. 2 is his arpeggiation of chords in the opening section and during their later return. As suggested earlier, this nineteenth-century practice can be criticized on several levels (Chopin left no such indications in the score) yet it can also be defended as an imaginative coloristic device, one that suggests the effect of a harp or guitar gently accompanying Chopin’s chaste, siciliano-like singing line. In the coda there are some inaccuracies that militate against a totally convincing outcome.

Among the eight waltzes included here, Koczalski’s airborne treatment of the Grande Valse Brillante, Op. 18, with its conscious avoidance of heavy-handedness, deserves special praise. In Op. 34, No. 1, Koczalski indulges in another rare textual emendation by extending two upward scales just before the coda (an idea also favored by Paderewski, Rubinstein, and a few others). He imparts a deft, almost whimsical character to Op. 34, No. 3. By way of contrast, Koczalski’s constant dislocations in the less ebullient Op. 69, No. 1 have a Pachmannesque quality that borders on exaggeration.

Similarly, the Nocturne Op. 32, No. 1 is played with very pronounced dislocations that have a certain kinship with Pachmann’s 1923 Victor recording. Koczalski prefers a minor (not major) final chord in this nocturne, carrying an authority (via Mikuli?) that ought to settle any remaining arguments over which is correct. In the Fantasy-Impromptu, despite an eloquently “sung” middle section, Koczalski’s left hand in the rapid outer parts is not always well aligned with his right, thus marring Chopin’s carefully-designed polyrhythm.

Finally, the three rare Electrola discs from 1937 are sonically superior and reveal Koczalski at or near his best. His relatively understated conceptions of the A-flat Polonaise and Scherzo No. 2 do not emphasize dramatic thrust or earth-shattering sonorities; still, he handles the notorious left-hand octaves of the polonaise with aplomb and also demonstrates that this familiar item does not need to be beaten to death. The scherzo has a welcome balance of contrast and continuity, while the light-on-its-feet mazurka causes regret that Koczalski did not record more of these works. To the three slight ecossaises, Koczalski brings a gracious flow and charm. And in his attractively nuanced F-Sharp Nocturne we can appreciate the absolute clarity of the fioritura. Worthy of mention here is Koczalski’s moderate, more-or-less standard tempo in comparison to the remarkably slow pace favored by Raoul Pugno in his 1903 G&T recording. Pugno, who worked briefly with Georges Mathias, another pupil of Chopin, claimed that Mathias—on the authority of Chopin—insisted that this Nocturne was always played too quickly. Here is a prime example of supposedly “authentic” sources in basic disagreement!


*          *          *

Bearing in mind the multi-faceted nature of Chopin’s style which has inspired a tremendous diversity of approach among pianists, and acknowledging that we will never know what Chopin himself might have thought of this grand-pupil’s interpretations, the recorded contributions of Koczalski cannot be lightly dismissed, as they have in some quarters. Steeped in a profound, unquestionable dedication to their concept of Chopin’s musical ideals on the part of both Mikuli and Koczalski, these performances, whatever their occasional limitations, remain unique sonic documents deserving the serious attention of all pianists and scholars.

© Donald Manildi, 2015

The Mystery of Raoul Koczalski

Record collectors have wondered for many years about the pianist Raoul von Koczalski; apart from the recorded evidence of his art, there is his very hazy life story. Some piano aficionados adore his playing, some find it peculiar, and there are others who despise it. Harold C. Schonberg in his The Great Pianists didn’t discuss the playing, writing merely that, if the variants on Koczalski’s recording of Chopin’s E-flat Nocturne were authentic, it is “a very valuable document.” What first attracted me and many others to his playing was Koczalski’s sound, his actual piano tone... his “touch” at the piano. It was greatly helped by the recorded acoustic provided by the Polydor engineers—not too closely miked, and with ample room reverberation and ambiance. That, combined with the pianist’s special talent for creating a marvelous atmosphere, resulted in some truly beautiful recorded performances.

The question of how to rank Koczalski among historical pianists, however, and whether his playing actually represents “what Chopin wanted” will continue to b e debated. A detailed examination is included in an essay by Mark Arnest on the Marston website:

Here I will examine the historical evidence for an outline of Koczalski’s biography. After a considerable amount of research I have come to the conclusion that much that has been written about both his earliest and then, his last, period is distorted and incorrect, and that his father, and later the pianist himself, went to some lengths to obfuscate the truth. Subsequent writers have often passed along misinformation. The article for Koczalski currently on Wikipedia contains multiple misstatements, two in the first paragraph, exaggerations put forth by the pianist’s father during his prodigy days. These are that Koczalski was a pupil of Anton Rubinstein, and that he received “staggering fees” for his prodigy concerts. Neither is true.

There has understandably been misinformation about his birth date. Koczalski was born on 3 January 1884, although the year is most often given as 1885 (including in the liner notes for the first Marston volume devoted to Koczalski.) The correct date was verified by Nicolas Slonimsky for Baker’s Biographical Dictionary. Raoul’s actual age was misrepresented as a year younger from the beginning.

A good place to start examining the reality of Koczalski’s life is the season 1887/1888, the time when articles began appearing about him as he emerged in a field crowded with other piano prodigies. In 1887 the eleven year old Josef Hofmann astonished England in a series of concerts, then went to the United States where his appearances created a positive sensation and earned a lot of money, which did not go unnoticed by the fathers of other prodigies. Almost immediately after Hofmann left, a new Swiss piano prodigy named Otto Hegner appeared. (Hegner had been born ten months later than Hofmann, in November 1876, but at the time it was thought that he was the elder of the two, for Hofmann’s managers floated the fiction that Hofmann was a full eighteen months younger than his actual age—the time-honored practice for managers of prodigies.) He played several concerts, got some good reviews, but somehow Hegner’s appearances didn’t catch the public’s imagination as did Hofmann’s, and a few months later he was forgotten when a Belgian prodigy named Julia Folville made her debut.

In that same season Koczalski played a recital in Warsaw, but he was less than half their age—he was only four! A report from a Łódz´ź newspaper from June 1888 stated that the first concert of the child was poorly attended, and not a financial success, but “ … artistically, the success was a lot better.” A great exhibition of pianos took place in Warsaw that year, and the boy was brought to see the rows of grand pianos. He chose the most elaborate one and began to play piece after piece. Those attending the exhibition applauded wildly. A charity concert was arranged, and soon he was on a tour performing through Russia, where he played for the Imperial family. Concerts were arranged in cities all over Europe.

Raoul’s father, Alexander Koczalski, who told one reporter that he had formerly been a “law counselor,” decided to abandon his own career to devote himself to exhibiting his prodigy son; he had hoped to bring him to play in England when he was five, but ultimately thought better of competing with Hofmann and Hegner. Details of Raoul’s preciosity, the early age at which he responded to music and his amazing musical feats, the facts that at the age of three he had been able to repeat simple melodies at the keyboard that he heard played or sung, that soon after he could repeat any piece after hearing it only twice, that his feet didn’t reach the pedals which his father had to manipulate for him—these were widely reported, all very similar to his prodigy predecessors. At three and a half he had begun music studies “in the hands of a professor at the Warsaw Conservatory.” This was the other-wise unknown Julian Gadomski, said to be a disciple of composer Stanisław Moniuszko.

The prodigy field was getting ever more crowded. An 1888 issue of Signale für die Musikalische Welt printed information about musical prodigies who had made their first public appearances that year. These included the pianists Hegner, Leopold Spielmann and Hermine Biber in Vienna, Koczalski in Saint Petersburg, Ernest Schelling and Marie Butatoff in London, and Zampari in Naples. Still, the public’s strong curiosity about prodigies allowed Alexander and Raoul to soldier on, the boy playing concerts almost non-stop and traveling continually, year after year.

Alexander took his son to Paris, where the Exposition Universelle was looking for exotic attractions. Raoul had to compete with a “Negro Village” where four hundred black people were exhibited when he made his debut on 9 June 1889, to generally good reviews. In February 1890 Raoul played a recital in Moscow and the program included Spindler’s piece “The Little Negress.” At the concert his teacher Gadomski also appeared, playing the piano reduction of the orchestra part in two movements from Beethoven’s first concerto. All the while Raoul’s father was honing his Barnum-like promotional abilities. The flyers for the concert read: “Raoul has received the award ‘Premiere Prix d’Enfant’ from the Parisian Musical Academy, and is well known through his concerts at the Paris Exposition Universelle, as well as in Saint Petersburg, Moscow, London, Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Odessa, Kiev, etc. … Compositions by Koczalski which he will perform in this concert are available for sale at box office for 40 kopeks; photographic cards for 1 rouble … Tickets can be had from 50 kopeks to 15 roubles.”

Cabinet card photos of the prodigy bedecked with medals sold well, and are not uncommon today.

In 1891 at a Belgian resort Raoul played for the corrupt Shah Nasiruddin of Persia, who was fascinated by the seven year old boy (said to be six at the time); in 1892 Koczalski was appointed “Court Pianist to the Shah.” (The same year Nasiruddin was facing the biggest crisis of his reign, over a tobacco concession he had granted to England, and it is highly doubtful he had much enthusiasm for piano playing.)

On 19 March 1893 the New York Times reported that Raoul’s managers (i.e., his father) “have proclaimed that he is Hofmann and Hegner rolled into one.” But the article quotes a report from the Berlin correspondent for the Musical Courier: “So great was the reputation that went in advance of this eight-year [sic] boy, and so skillful and persistent the puff preliminary and the general advertising racket, that a vast audience was attracted to the Singakademie, despite the fact that Berlin is just now pestered with wonder children of all sorts and denominations … For youthfulness Raoul Koczalski takes the medal … yet with supreme effort and the courage of my convictions I must put it down in black and white that I consider Raoul Koczalski nothing more than a highly-talented piano playing boy of hothouse culture, but by no means a genius … Above all noticeable in this is Raoul’s lack of rhythm …”

Raoul made his English debut on 10 May 1893, coming after what his father called “a triumphal world tour.” He was immediately, like the others before him, dubbed “The new little Mozart.” As usual his father made him appear wearing rows of medals pinned to his shirt, a full dozen of them. According to the Westminster Budget for 23 June 1893, “They have been showered upon him by Their Majesties of Russia and Romania, of Persia and Belgium, of Spain, Turkey, Germany and Italy.” The number of medals he had been awarded seemed to expand and contract with the telling, as a German article from March 1893 reported that Raoul “ … doesn’t seem to be especially proud of his 18 decorations, although quite some of them are art-medals from Music associations etc. ”

Some critics in England found him superior to both Hofmann and Hegner. In London he was tested and asked to sight read a Mazurka by Sigismond Stojowski. It had widely-spaced harmonies that were almost impossible to realize by a child with small hands. He not only read the work with “accuracy, but with facility, and it was curious to observe with what readiness he compressed the chords so as to bring them within the reach of his fingers,” according to the 17 July 1893 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. He was also a composer, numbering fifty works by age nine, fifteen of which had already been published. In the fall of 1894 he conducted his “Symphonic Legend” for orchestra in Leipzig and Berlin. He was at work composing an opera entitled “Hagar,” the overture of which he conducted in Cologne. Some press reports stated he had taken some lessons with Hans von Bülow, but there seems to be no evidence that this is true.

The British reports of his successes did not mention that interest in him in the rest of Europe had died as quickly as it had arisen, and in Vienna alone there was competition from three new, blind prodigies. By the end of 1893 Koczalski’s fame in England was already eclipsed by a pianist who was a year younger, Frieda Simonson, who The Guardian on 21 June 1893 found “far less affected” than Koczalski. A description of the boy’s affected behavior reached the United States, where the Topeka Times (quoting the Chronicle) described his London debut: “ … Sometimes Raoul Koczalski bent over the keys as if about to kiss them, sometimes he threw himself stiffly back on the seat and tore at the keyboard as though enraged with the instrument. Then his gaze as often as not was directed at the audience, the expression of his face altering with the spirit of the music …” One German review described how “ … at the piano he becomes someone else: the spirits of the sounds seem to grab him, he gets into a kind of artistic ecstasy … ” It seems his father had coached him in a series of artificial gestures and histrionic platform behavior, which did not wear well with audiences over time. Nevertheless his constant touring continued through France, Germany, Scandinavia, and Holland.

Raoul was in Berlin in December 1893 when Anton Rubinstein played three recitals in Bechstein Hall for artists and students only. There were three guests of honor, the prodigies Hofmann, Koczalski, and Simonson. (Hofmann does not seem to have ever mentioned Koczalski, although in 1898 he told a journalist that he had heard all the competing prodigies and thought only Otto Hegner to be “really musical.” In 1904 twelve year old Mieczysław Horszowski and his mother were visiting in Berlin with Hofmann’s parents. According to Mrs. Horszowski: “They told me that Koczalski paid 3,000 marks to publicize his first concert in Berlin, but it was worth it, because he got it all back.”)

Alexander Koczalski of course knew of the immense success Hofmann had in the United States, the fortune he had made for his managers. The Boston Sunday Times reported on 25 February 1894 that Raoul would be coming to the U. S. A. the next season.

The earliest published version of the Koczalski name with the added “von” that we have been able to find is a May 1894 Rotterdam report that discussed plans for the American tour, mentioning that the pianist was to receive one million German marks (250,000 nineteenth century dollars) for one hundred concerts. This seems a gross exaggeration. At that time the biggest money earners among musical artists were the de Reszke brothers and Nellie Melba, who received between $1,500 to $1,800 per performance. Otto Hegner had tried to cash in with an American tour just after the Hofmann sensation, but had been a failure. Managers were becoming leery of prodigies. Despite widespread press announcements, no American tour for Koczalski ensued.

There were hundreds of articles about Raoul, most of them just repeating exaggerated stories fed to the reporters by Alexander, who sent ridiculous claims to the press that his son’s fame in Paris was eclipsing Paderewski’s, both as a pianist and as a composer. But some press notices from that time were not so credulous, and speculated on the Koczalski family’s origins, noting that the family as recently as 1891 was living in “the Jewish ghetto of Moscow.”

In 1895 they went to Christiania, Norway, then back to Riga for a series of four Chopin evenings. In December in Moscow he played two recitals on a “Concert grand by the famous manufacturer Julius Blüthner recently sent for the concert from Leipzig.” In the summer of 1896 Koczalski had some lessons in playing Beethoven’s works with Eugen d’Albert. It was at that time that a biography of Koczalski by the Leipzig music critic Bernhard Vogel appeared. The year 1897 found them again in Riga, this time in a split bill, appearing with the heldentenor, Alexander von Bandrowski (who in 1902 was to make his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in the title role of Paderewski’s opera, Manru.)

Some of the puffery sounds too familiar, a lot of it cannot be verified, and at least a portion of it is not true. A certain bending of the truth, accompanied by a lot of exaggeration and fantastic claims, seems to have been part of father Alexander’s plan. The Society Herald for 15 January 1889 wrote: “ … his father says that he is the most brilliant pianist and organist of the day.” To be proud of his son’s accomplishments was only natural, but trumpeting that Raoul was Court Pianist to the Shah of Persia seemed ridiculous even then. Koczalski senior was not unmindful of the luster such honors brought to Moriz Rosenthal, Emil von Sauer, Bernhard Stavenhagen, and other renowned artists who had been appointed court pianists to actual royal courts with real musical establishments. (This must have caused quite a bit of mirth among those other pianists.)

From the beginning the name “Raoul” had been unusual, and there was that newly-arrived “von” in his name, denoting an aristocratic lineage. It was something very doubtful for a boy from Poland who was probably at least half-Jewish, a kind of imaginary flourish the father tacked on to the public persona he was building for Raoul. The added “von” stuck and Koczalski was to use if for the rest of his life, with little or no questioning of its appropriateness from critics and other writers on music.

The father tried a whole battery of devices and misstatements to attract attention. In 1889 just before Raoul was to make his debut in Odessa, he had tried hiding the family’s Polish origins (we can only guess at his motives) and claimed that they were all from Odessa. In 1893 a French journalist reported that Raoul had taken lessons in Poland with Godowsky “on a daily basis.” (If the journalist had mistaken Godowsky for Gadomski, Alexander did nothing to correct him.) One unsupportable claim the father made to the same journalist was that Raoul had played for Tchaikovsky and Anton Rubinstein in Saint Petersburg, and the two great musicians were extraordinarily impressed. The Tchaikovsky claim was not repeated much, but the Rubinstein story persisted. The truth was published in 1924 in a Dutch paper—Rubinstein had recognized the boy’s talent, but merely advised the father to take Raoul to Lemberg (Lviv, now in the Ukraine) for further study with the then-popular thunderer, Liszt pupil Ludwig Marek. Raoul included a Waltz by Marek on some of his programs, but after only a few lessons that teacher died, and soon after Koczalski began his four years of study with Chopin’s pupil Karol Mikuli.

Later it was falsely claimed that Raoul was studying with Theodor Leschetizky. Another claim was that the Shah of Persia had not only named Raoul Court Pianist, but also awarded him a yearly pension of 3,000 francs. Another was that Raoul’s net receipts for ten days playing in Berlin had amounted to more than six thousand 1893 dollars, a huge amount. So much money supposedly coming in from concert receipts and pensions—was it necessary to keep a nine year old boy constantly traveling and playing? Raoul was a moneymaker, but not to the extent Alexander claimed, and he found it expedient to keep the boy on the road, constantly working. Between 7 February and 10 April, 1893, Raoul played fifty-four concerts over a period of sixty-five days; in the course of ten consecutive days he played two concerts a day in different locations. It’s difficult not to conclude that Raoul’s early life was a trial imposed on him by an avaricious father with highly questionable methods and motives. More than once local officials questioned whether the boy was being harmed by his taskmaster father’s demands, as in March 1893 when several German newspapers made direct appeals to their readers not to attend Koczalski’s recitals because he was being exploited and harmed by his father, and then in March 1895 when officials in Haarlem, Holland opened an official inquiry as to whether the boy’s appearances were harming him and therefore, illegal.

Alexander was a man who did not scruple to keep his young son constantly traveling and playing all over the world, needing to try ever more unconventional methods to keep interest in Raoul fresh. It was a difficult task, for ultimately interest in the novelty of any prodigy finally waned—other prodigies appeared, and Raoul was growing taller and older. What was needed was a huge news event that would bring Raoul’s name to the absolute forefront of the world press.

Such a thing occurred in February 1896 when newspapers in several of the world’s capitals carried an astonishing story. Father and son Koczalski had been lodging at a hotel in Düsseldorf when one of the hotel maids discovered that Raoul was not a boy at all, but “a comely girl.” It was said that there was “indubitable evidence” to prove this. It was recalled that the German Emperor had declared that he had never seen a boy “with more delicate hands.” Quite a controversy ensued, with some writers stating it had to be mere gossip, and more taking a morbid interest in the story. (In our day a jazz pianist, Billy Tipton, made news after his demise at the age of 74 in 1989, when medical workers discovered that he was really a she.) There was wild speculation—it was noted that the young pianist had cancelled several dates a little before this scandal broke—perhaps it was a cover-up, and perhaps he had in reality himself fathered a girl child (an amazing accomplishment for a boy, no matter how prodigious); it was further speculated that Raoul wasn’t Alexander’s son at all, for Alexander was “obviously a Hebrew” while “every action and expression of the prodigy betray Gentile extractions.” The 27 April, 1896 issue of the Musical Courier carried a short item signed by “O.F.” [Otto Florsheim] stating that German manager Hermann Wolff had sent a translation into German of an officially-attested birth notice for Raoul, and that it “proved” he was born on 3 January 1885, and proved he was in fact a boy, the son of a “hereditary nobleman” and of the Roman Catholic faith. Since Florsheim was provided only with a copied translation, he should not have had so much faith in the veracity of any of its claims, most especially the birthdate given. We leave it to history to determine whether Raoul was really a boy, or his father the Catholic son of a nobleman. The story kept Koczalski’s name alive, and in December 1896 in Dresden he played what his father claimed was his one-thousandth concert. By then no one believed that the boy was really a girl, although the incident led to composer Sir Augustus Harris writing an opera, Der Wunderknabe, with a libretto that was supposed to be based on the Koczalski “real sex” scandal.

Koczalski’s opera “Rymond” was mounted at Elberfeld in October 1902. It was thought to have “lyrical climaxes” but the lack of drama was criticized. Alexander was particularly adept at chasing royalty, and in 1904 Raoul played for the King and Queen of Denmark, as well as the Queen of England who was visiting her parents. Now he seemed to be wearing seventeen medals. He had given hundreds of concerts and composed nearly sixty works, but the prodigy was now a young man, and interest in his concerts continued to wane. In January 1904 his recital in Leipzig was panned by the critic for the Musikalisches Wochenblatt: “Once his rare talent created great expectations which have not been realised to the full extent, in the sense that he has not become an all-round artist with a sharply defined profile. He confined himself to a small pianistic area: his strength lies in the polished, smooth, but also brilliant passage work and in the so-called salon-elegant renditions of appropriate compositions. He avoids works which dig deeper and require real empathy; and when he plays them nevertheless, there is something missing. For instance: Chopin’s Ballade in G minor came off too soft, too effeminate, and the C Minor Nocturne, although technically perfect, could have been played more majestically in the central part and more passionate…”

It was decided for him to curtail playing in public, to work on expanding his repertoire and to write new compositions. However something happened, and it is possible there was a break with his father at this time. Raoul took up residence in Paris in 1904 and didn’t return to extensive touring until 1909, although in October 1906 he gave a recital in Düsseldorf with a new gimmick—he played Chopin compositions for fifty-two minutes without stopping, not allowing the audience to applaud after any piece. A series of four recitals in Würzburg in 1908 was sparsely attended; the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik reported: “This man has a phenomenal technique, which is in fact so impressive that it turns into the opposite—into indifference and apathy.” In 1910 he played a series of Chopin festival recitals in all of Europe’s capitals to celebrate the Chopin centenary. The Rafael Joseffy pupil George Halprin heard Koczalski in recital in Europe at this time, and told his pupil Edward Blickstein that there was an air of pompous pretentiousness at the recital, with a candelabra on the piano.

March 1914 found Koczalski in Posen (Poznan´), a city of 160,000 of both Poles and Germans. His concert was poorly attended, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik explaining: “The Polish commercial boycott of everything German, and German countermeasures, have their effect on concert life … the Polish artists are the victims …” A week later he played his own “Suite Polonaise” at a recital in Königsberg, the Neue Zeitschrift finding influences of Chopin with modern harmonies in it, and “ … despite elegance and sometimes liveliness, the composition is impregnated with melancholy and weltschmerz.” He was playing in Russia when the First World War erupted, and he tried to get to France via Germany. Unfortunately he was imprisoned in Bad Nauheim until the end of the war—but while imprisoned he composed many new works. His piano concerto in E minor was premiered in that city under conductor Hans Winderstein. After the war he moved to Wiesbaden, and married a woman named Elsa Fuchs whom he had met before the war. One report had it that he himself circulated a rumor that he had died. Perhaps at that point he just wanted to forget his past.

His career outside Germany and France went into a decline and not much is found about him in the press. His competition was fierce and most international critics did not class his playing with that of other pianists. In February 1920 in Wiesbaden he accompanied violinist Ernst Groel in the premiere of his violin sonata. Apparently Koczalski was quite close to his mother Laura; when she died he seems to have suffered a breakdown, but by the beginning of 1921 he was back before the public with a series of three Chopin recitals played in a few Swiss cities. The Journal de Genève noted “ … perhaps one could have wished for more depth now and then ... incomparable charm but lacking in profundity in the Fantaisie …” In Halle in February 1923 his Chopin recital was reviewed in the Zeitschrift für Musik by H. Kleemann, who wrote “ … unfortunately the sparks seem to be extinguished.” June of 1924 he premiered his own G major piano sonata in a recital ranging from Mozart to Liszt. His composition did not find the favor of Bruno Schrader in the Zeitschrift für Musik: “ … nice pianistic ideas, but giving more the impression of a multi-part improvisation …” The same month his “Lento Sostenuto” for cello and orchestra was premiered in Gera. In the fall of 1924 he tried conducting his own concerto with pianist Attilio Brugnoli in Wiesbaden.

That season he played three Chopin recitals in the small hall of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. After the first recital the critic for Algemeen Handelsblad felt his “generous forte a bit too massive” for the small hall. Apart from a few slips, he had played the notes well—but the question of whether he had understood “the inner Chopin” had not been answered. After the second recital the critic had grave reservations, finding mostly “pure pianism … a tendency to use massive force of sound, false pathos, and partly flirtatious, partly sentimental phrasing which we can hardly associate with the essence of Chopin’s art. We miss almost completely the intangible, evocative, metaphysical side ... and only rarely do we feel the mysterious touch of what is hidden behind the notes … Von Koczalski is a Mikuli pupil and thus pretends to continue the tradition … but this is no guarantee for an authentic Chopin interpretation and who can ascertain for us that Mikuli would have been pleased with Von Koczalski?” The critic cited a monograph on Chopin interpretation that Koczalski had written fifteen years earlier: “He wrote a lot of things which we would fully endorse and would have liked to urge him to put into practice … has Koczalski changed so drastically during these fifteen years, or do we have here another psychological enigma? … His view may be ‘traditional’—we prefer the untraditional which has become ours. And we put aside the Berlin decree by which he is said to be the best Chopin player of our time.”

January 1926 found him in recital in Berlin with the singer Gretl Esselborn in a program of songs and solos by himself and Chopin. Perhaps dismayed at his lack of success, he moved to Italy later in 1926, spending some time in Paris, where it is said he was studying musicology and philosophy at the Sorbonne. He returned to playing in public in 1934. He wrote a young Dutch friend, Alex Grosch (a soldier later killed in the Wehrmacht in December 1943) that he had been in Poland when World War Two broke out: “… the war events surprised me in Poland ... Have ... spent many days fleeing …” Amazingly, the place to which Koczalski fled was Germany. He wrote Grosch that German military authorities aided him and his career, and in 1935 Koczalski seems to have removed to Germany, regularly giving concerts there and throughout occupied countries during the Nazi era, playing his repertoire as well as an occasional concert that featured his own compositions. This raises many questions, for even if Koczalski had no Jewish blood, he was Polish, and the Nazis had made no effort to hide the fact that they considered Poles members of an inferior race. Nevertheless he was apparently officially accepted and approved, and that approval is at least in part one reason why he received rapturous reviews in Nazi Germany.

In May of 1937 after he had played a Chopin cycle, the Zeitschrift für Musik wrote that Koczalski was as unsurpassed in Chopin as another Nazi favorite, Frederic Lamond, was in playing Beethoven. In its November issue the magazine proudly reported that Koczalski had officially become a resident in Germany. In the spring of 1938 he played his own G sharp minor sonata in recitals in Munich and Berlin. The Munich critic Roderich von Mojsisovics thought his sonata a great work which “ … seamlessly joins in the developmental line of Bach-Bruckner …” He was asked to record most of Chopin for the Polydor label. The April 1939 issue of The Gramophone reviewed his recordings of the Chopin etudes, finding some to compare with those of the greatest pianistic rivals, especially those of Op. 25. Koczal-ski wrote Grosch about those discs: “I find the recordings quite a success. What a lucky stroke to be able to preserve artists’ playing for eternity. What would it be worth to hear original recordings of Beethoven, Chopin or Liszt?”

Late in 1936 conductor Peter Raabe and the Landesorchester Gau Berlin had Koczalski playing his own concerto in G major, described in one review as a kind of elegant, tuneful salon work. Raabe was the President of the Nazi State Music Institute (Reichsmusikkammer.) On 3 December 1937 there was a broadcast of a recording in Germany of him playing Chopin E minor Concerto with Heidelberg Municipal Orchestra. He appeared with the Berlin Philharmonic three times, playing Chopin’s E minor Concerto under Karl Böhm on 22 March 1939, then after the War Tchaikovsky’s B-flat Concerto with Sergiu Celibidache on 2 December 1945, and the world premiere of his own fourth concerto under Leopold Ludwig on 17 February 1946.

The Belgian site CEGESOMA has a photo of Goebbels attending a Koczalski performance in the Beethovensaal on 23 April 1937, which was a benefit for the Goebbels Fellowship.

He played at least two concerts in Germany shortly after the start of the War. A planned tour of fifteen European cities to mark his golden jubilee as a pianist in 1939 was cancelled after recitals in January in Riga, and in April in Nuremberg. Soon German authorities stopped him from playing further in public, limiting him to recitals in private settings. He taught, composed, and worked on writing an autobiography, advertising that he was available to teach all aspects of music. Koczalski was reported attending an Emil von Sauer recital on 5 October 1941 in Berlin. He wrote Grosch “… sometimes I feel very sad … because the habit of playing for large audiences is part of myself and it is very difficult to get used to only private concerts …” He worked with a German army opera troupe rehearsing Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio. Inevitably things became more difficult; his house in Berlin was destroyed by bombs in November 1943.

Not surprisingly, he could not avoid becoming embroiled in politics. Grosch sent him a volume of fairy tales—this was intercepted and Koczalski was interrogated. Unknown to Koczalski, in April and May, 1940, under direct orders from Stalin, 22,000 captured Polish military and police officers, as well as arrested Polish citizens deemed to be landowners, saboteurs, factory owners, lawyers, officials, and priests, had been executed in the Katyn forest. In 1943 the Nazis discovered the graves and announced that Russia had committed the massacre. The Soviets claimed the murders had been committed by the Nazis. Koczalski was drawn into the deadly controversy.

In 1946, an article was published in the Polish magazine Dziennik Powszechny—the article is quoted in the biography of Koczalski by Stanisław Dybowski (Selene, Warsaw 1998). The article discusses the relationship between Koczalski and the well-known Nazi official Hans Hinkel, identifying him only as “Heinkel.” (Biographer Dybowski did not seem to know that the article got the name wrong, and himself refers to this historical figure only as “Heinkel.”) Hinkel had been the editor of Germany’s most anti-Semitic newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, which on 19 October 1935 published the opinion that Koczalski was “one of the most significant Chopin interpreters.” Hinkel was a manager of the Reichskulturkammer.

The unnamed journalist had claimed that Hinkel, wanting a Polish cultural figure to sign a statement about the Katyn massacre for Germany’s political purposes, had offered Koczalski inducements to view the mass graves, and sign the statement. Koczalski refused, citing his poor health, but after that he suffered “constant harassment and persecutions.” Dybowski cites a woman who was in touch with Koczalski regularly at the time. According to her, despite blackmail attempts, Koczalski had twice refused Nazi offers to be a member of an international committee investigating the Katyn massacre.

Dybowski claims that historical documents confirm that Koczalski’s only participation with officials in Nazi Germany were the necessary ones for his career there as a musician (overlooking the implications of this.) Dybowski seems to present the story of Koczalski’s refusal to become involved with the Katyn massacre as a kind of vindication, and states that the post-War Polish government also wanted Koczalski to become involved with the question of the Katyn massacre, for its own propaganda purposes, but the pianist refused that as well. Because of this, and perhaps for other reasons that Dybowski does not suggest, in Poland “ … odium and persecution had fallen on him and went on to the end of his days.”

There was one report that “Hitler later interred him in a camp until after the war as a foreign national”—this is not true, and is probably a misstated retelling of Koczalski’s internment during World War One. Equally amazing as his earlier fleeing to Nazi Germany, Koczalski returned to Poland in 1945. It was of course known that he had performed for the Nazis and he was not popular. He gave some concerts and taught. A 9 May 1948 Berlin concert was advertised as his “Last Concert before his American tour.” He did not live to play in America.

Despite the fact that he composed an enormous corpus of works including six operas and (it is said) had performed 4,600 concerts during his life, there was almost no mention in the Polish press of Koczalski’s death, from heart failure in Poznan´ on 24 November 1948 at age of sixty-four. At the funeral ceremonies Poland’s government posthumously honored the dead musician with the Commander’s Cross of the Polonia Restituta Order. Funeral expenses were borne by the state. His pupils had included Tadeusz Kerner, Rainer von Zastrow, and earlier in Germany, his favorite, Slavka Nikolowa. He was not forgotten in Germany, where a memorial concert to him took place in Berlin on 4 December 1958.

During the last years of his life, and after his death through his recordings, Koczalski’s playing was cited by a number of individuals who believed that it represented the authentic Chopin style, exemplary of the “pure Chopin.” But is it really, or is it only what these proponents desired “authentic Chopin” to be? The evidence is weak at best, and the truth elusive. Recordings of Koczalski from the post-War period include radio broadcasts as well as a series for the MEWA label out of Poznan´; these late recordings are as controversial as earlier ones. There is no question that some of the negative reaction to his recorded playing stems from revulsion to his cooperation with the Nazi regime. Nor is there any doubt that some of his recordings are beautiful documents of romantic piano playing. Many questions about Koczalski the man and the artist may never be answered, as well as the unresolvable claims about the “true Chopin.”

© Gregor Benko, 2015

A thousand thanks to Johan Falleyn and Francis Crociata for their help with research. All translations were made by Johan Falleyn.

This second volume of Raoul von Koczalski’s pre-war recordings is divided into three sections by record company: Homocord, Electrola, and Deutsche Grammophon. Little is known about the Homocord recordings and it is impossible to date them accurately because there is no extant documentation for the actual recording sessions. Because Homocord was a German company, the Koczalski recordings were presumed to have been recorded in Berlin. Recently, however, Christian Zwarg, a major authority on the dating of undocumented recordings, has researched the Homocord matrix system and has determined that these Koczalski recordings are part of a series recorded in Milan in September of 1930. We have not been able to determine whether all of these recordings were issued by Homocord before the company became a part of the Lindström group, but several sides were issued in 1936 and 1937 on the Odeon label after Lindström had acquired the defunct Homocord catalog.

Koczalski’s Deutsche Grammophon recordings present a similar difficulty because the recording session logs have not survived. Fortunately the exhaustive research of Michael Gray has uncovered documentation of the dates when the wax masters were received by the factory in Hannover for processing and pressing. In fact, we do know the precise recording dates of some recordings from this period as well as the dates when the waxes were received at the factory. Using the evidence of such recordings, it appears that the wax masters usually arrived at the factory three days after they were recorded. Therefore, we can deduce the date of recording by subtracting three days from the date when each group of masters was received at the factory. While on the subject of the DGG recordings, it should be pointed out that when Koczalski recorded Chopin’s etudes, he had to play them out of sequence in order to squeeze them on to the minimum number of 78 rpm sides: six sides for Op. 10, seven for Op. 25, and one for the three Nouvelle Etudes. We have reordered the etudes to reflect Chopin’s sequence. His recording of the twenty-four preludes, Op. 28, were made in proper sequence on successive matrix numbers.

© Ward Marston, 2015

Koczalski: A Key to Authentic Chopin Playing?

Raoul Koczalski's place in the history of pianism is secure and unique: Secure, because of his dozens of beautiful Chopin recordings; unique, because many believe him to be the one pianist who most accurately absorbed and passed down Chopin’s own pianistic approach. This “absorption” occurred reputedly through his childhood studies with Chopin’s student, Karol Mikuli, a connection Koczalski himself stressed. In a concert flyer for the 1937/38 season, he mentioned his studies with Mikuli in the first sentence, and continued, “I have been raised up by the press and public alike as a Chopin specialist, and I happily fulfill their wish that I put together my programs mainly from the works of my great fellow countryman.”


Koczalski’s Chopin discography is one of the largest of any pianist before World War Two; his corpus of Chopin recordings, about equal to Artur Rubinstein’s, is only slightly smaller than Alfred Cortot’s. (No other pianist is even close to these three.)


Koczalski wrote about his connection to Chopin’s “spirit” in an essay about his studies with Mikuli. He was just a boy, only twelve at the conclusion of his lessons, but the study was intense: five months a year for four years, with daily two-hour lessons. “[Mikuli] neglected nothing,” wrote Koczalski: “the position at the piano, the fingering, the use of the pedal, legato, staccato and portato playing, octave scales, fiorituras, the building of the phrase, singing tone of a musical line, dynamic contrasts, rhythm and above all the exactness with which to approach the master's works.” He says his youth was a help, not a hindrance: “[I]t was like children who learn foreign languages faster than adults. I took in everything without criticizing and was so full of enthusiasm that within a short time I saw in Chopin's work the A and O of music.”


Even so, the depth and authenticity of Koczalski’s connection to Chopin remains speculative. Chopin died long before the invention of recording, and it is distressing that so many who wrote down their impressions of his playing chose to label it merely “indescribable.” All we have to go on are highly subjective and often contradictory verbal descriptions, and recordings by pianists who did not hear Chopin but studied with someone who did. It is true that Mikuli passed on his memories of Chopin's playing to his students including Koczalski, Aleksander Michalowski and Moriz Rosenthal; the remarkable musician and singer Pauline Viardot-Garcia passed on her memories to Camille Saint-Saëns; another of Chopin's pupils, Georges Mathias, passed his to his students Isidore Philipp and Raoul Pugno; most important of all, Liszt passed on his memories of Chopin to a slew of students and acolytes like Vladimir de Pachmann; and so on.


To complete posterity's bewilderment, consider that many of these pianists had strongly individual musical personalities. Imagine inferring Cortot’s own interpretive approach based on the playing of his students Dino Ciani, Clara Haskil, Eric Heidsieck, Raymond Lewenthal, Marcelle Meyer,Vlado Perlemuter, and Solomon - and to be accurate to the analogy of Chopin and Koczalski, now move one generation further, and limit our intimated knowledge of Cortot’s playing to the playing of their students!


This uncertainty makes the value of Koczalski’s legacy controversial. Among his admirers are Chopin scholar Jean-Jaques Eigeldinger and 19th-Century performance practice scholars Jonathan Bellman, James Methuen-Campbell and Robert Philip. But some of his detractors are at least as illustrious. His countryman and rival Artur Rubinstein described Koczalski when both were members of the 1938 Ysaÿe competition jury: “Poland sent Raoul Koczalski, an ex-child prodigy who was covered with medals when he was six, some of them hanging on his little bottom; he lived in Germany and developed into a very bad pianist” while Claudio Arrau said “in Germany, a man named Koczalsky was an idol. He played only Chopin. It was awful.” Koczalski was a better colleague and warmly praised at least a few other pianists, including Alfred Cortot for his Chopin playing, an area in which Koczalski could reasonably have felt defensive. But his own name is conspicuously absent from most other pianists’ memoirs. Just why this is remains a mystery.


Fortunately, we have his recordings, if not his complete history. Of course Chopin's own playing was inimitable, and the effect it had upon his hearers could not be easily recreated. No one today thinks Koczalski played “just like Chopin,” but after much study, I am convinced that Koczalski’s many recordings in fact do indeed tell us a great deal about Chopin’s own approach to the piano - at least, as recalled by Mikuli. I make this claim confidently after comparing Koczalski’s performances to those by other pianists born both around Koczalski’s era and earlier.


Piano performance practice has never been static, but it’s hard today to comprehend how rapidly it was changing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Only forty-three years separate the births of the arch-Romantic Ignacy Paderewski from the arch-modernist Rudolf Serkin. (Birth dates are meaningful, for pianists rarely make dramatic changes in their musical approach, once their artistic personalities are formed in their early to mid-twenties.) Beginning with the earliest surviving recordings by concert pianists starting in 1889, over 11,000 recordings by more than 500 pianists born between 1830 and 1900 amply document these changes in performance practice. Earlier pianists are even better represented if we include piano rolls, which can be helpful as long as the listener is aware of what they can and cannot provide.


Koczalski was born in the middle of the 1880s, a very rich decade for pianists: Among the others born within five years of Koczalski are Egon Petri, George Copeland, Lazare-Levy, Ignaz Friedman, Artur Schnabel, Percy Grainger, Olga Samaroff, Elly Ney, Wilhelm Backhaus, Leo Sirota, Robert Lortat, Edwin Fischer, Artur Rubinstein, William Murdoch, Heinrich Neuhaus, E. Robert Schmitz, David Saperton and Alexander Borovsky; Myra Hess and Benno Moiseiwitsch miss the five-year cutoff by just a few weeks. Depending on one’s definition of modernity, Petri and Schnabel are arguably the first modern pianists, but they are not the outliers here. Only Friedman and Lortat approach Koczalski in their embodiment of an earlier Romantic style, and neither looks back as far. (One of that decade’s other backward-looking pianists was Bela Bartok, but that’s the subject for another essay.)


Here I’ll mention just three archaic aspects of Koczalski’s playing: 1) his quiet “strumming” of accompaniment chords; 2) his use of grace notes, and specifically the eschapee (or “escape tone,” a term used in counterpoint instruction) - a melodic ornament in which a dissonant grace note is resolved by a leap; and 3) his use of evolving interpretive gestures.


Strumming: The most archaic feature of Koczalski’s recorded playing is his tendency to “strum” chords. This is not rubato, which has an expressive function, but is purely sonic: It softens the piano tone by breaking up what would otherwise be simultaneous attacks. Common in the earliest recorded pianists, it’s rare in pianists born after the 1860s. Paderewski’s two recordings of Schubert’s Moment Musical D. 780 No. 2 are prime examples, as he almost continually arpeggiates the chorale-like outer sections. (Paderewski also adds a bit of expressive function by slowing the arpeggiation at phrase peaks, blurring the distinction between arpeggiation and full-blown rubato in a way that drives music theorists mad.) Aside from the earliest recorded pianists, it is most commonly found on recordings of the pianists with the oldest pedigrees: The Leipzig school, which includes the students of Clara Schumann. You can hear the Leipzig-trained Wilhelm Backhaus strumming chords during his final recital in 1969. (Backhaus, of course, was also the last pianist to play improvised introductions as part of a living tradition.)


But few pianists go as far as Koczalski in such places as the opening of Chopin’s Ballade No. 2, where virtually every chord is rapidly arpeggiated. Though common in his playing, it’s also a conscious choice, not a mannerism: Koczalski was capable of squarely striking quiet chords, as at the start of the middle section of the Nocturne, Op. 48 No. 1.


Grace notes: Use of the eschapee - dissonant grace note resolved by a leap - creates a conflict between two common Romantic practices: (1) Romantic pianists played grace notes before the beat; and (2), they emphasized melodic dissonances by delaying them. According to these practices, the eschapee could be played either before the beat or after it, and presumably any place in between.


Pianists born before 1870 show wide variations in placing the eschapee, with no clear priority of either of the above rules; but later practice becomes much more homogeneous, giving (1) precedence and playing the eschapee before the beat and the resolution on the beat. Koczalski is almost alone among pianists of his era in placing the eschapee not just on, but even after the beat, as he does in bar nineteen of Chopin’s Nocturne, Op. 48 No. 1 (at 1 minute 10 seconds). Hess and Jan Smeterlin also play the bar this way, but they de-emphasize the eschapee by playing it quickly and quietly. The little-known Olof Wibergh is the pianist of Koczalski’s generation who comes closest to Koczalski’s approach, while other pianists play the eschapee ahead of the beat and the resolution on the beat. In his 1937 recording of the Nocturne Op. 15 No. 2, Koczalski plays the eschapee in bar 12 ahead of the bass and the resolution after the bass - a more modern, but not quite modern approach (at 44 seconds) - but when the passage is repeated in bar 52 he intensifies the gesture by playing the eschapee just after the bass, but shortening it (at 2 minutes 38 seconds).


Evolving Interpretive Gestures The example from Op. 15 No. 2 is also an “evolving interpretive gesture,” which is just a fancy way of saying that a pianist changes something in a passage when it’s repeated, usually to intensify it. Composers often write it in. The most common instance is a theme that is initially stated piano and returns forte. It’s more common in Romantic pianists, who placed a high value on narrative drive and variety, than in modern pianists, who are more concerned with interpretive consistency - at analogous passages, they are more inclined to do more or less of what they’ve previously done than to change the gesture itself.


Such interpretive details have to be carefully worked out. This points out a paradox in some Romantic pianists’ interpretations, for in reality these gestures had been carefully constructed beforehand to give the impression of spontaneity. The opening bars of Koczalski’s two recordings of the Op. 53 Polonaise - recorded about 15 years apart - are about as identical as two performances can be. (The earlier recording is on Marston 52063-2.) There’s the extremely sharp staccato on the first beat of bar 2, so abrupt that you can hear a little room ambiance even on the earlier acoustic recording; the blurred pedal between the third beat of bar 2 and its resolution on the first beat of bar 3; the much more extreme “sigh” motif between bars 6 and 7 than between bars 2 and 3; and the A-flat instead of A on the first beat of bar 10 (not a known variant from Chopin).


On the other hand, Koczalski could also be genuinely spontaneous. For instance, his three recordings of the Nocturne Op. 32 #1 all have the same broad outline but variety in the details, and the dynamic schemes of his two recordings of the Mazurka Op. 68 #3 differ significantly.


Some Details and Highlights in the Performances


The “push and pull” effect in Koczalski’s elegant performance of Chopin’s Berceuse comes from an earlier era. He generally speeds up when the note values are shorter and slows down when they are longer, increasing the contrast between the lyrical passages and the brilliant ones. Koczalski also shares one striking detail with Rosenthal and Michalowski, the other Mikuli students who recorded this piece: The enormous slowing of tempo for the trills in bars 43 and 44 (2 minutes 26 seconds to 2 minutes 34 seconds on the Homochord recording, and 2 minutes 22 seconds to 2 minutes 30 seconds on the Polydor). Could this tradition come from Chopin?


Maybe, but maybe not. This tradition is remarkably widespread, appearing in nearly every early recording of the Berceuse. The possible link to Chopin is further weakened by the fact that two of the recordings in which it is least noticeable are the two oldest - Pugno’s in 1903 and Paderewski’s in 1912 - suggesting that this tradition may had become widespread as recording took off in the early 20th Century. (It’s also significant that like Koczalski, Pugno is one of Chopin’s “grand-students.”) The slowing is also only slightly in evidence in Alfred Reisenauer’s 1905 Welte piano roll, and local tempo modifications are one thing that piano rolls reproduce very accurately.


Koczalski’s performance of Chopin's funeral march follows a well-known earlier tradition, but not Chopin’s: He performs the piece with the Anton Rubinstein dynamic arch that also appears in recordings by Rachmaninoff, Pugno, and Nat. The first section is a continuous crescendo interrupted by the pianissimo trio, followed by a repeat of the first section with the opposite dynamic scheme, going from loud to soft, as if a funeral cortege were first arriving and then leaving. Rubinstein’s interpretation was so famous that it rated a reference in Eduard Hanslick’s obituary of the pianist-composer. Not traditional is the minor third Koczalski adds to the first chord of the fff return.


Koczalski’s buoyant 1937 performance of the Mazurka Op. 68 No. 3 makes us regret that he recorded so few of them. It sparkles with dynamic contrasts and varying treatments of the meter, as the upbeat is sometimes attached to the following downbeat, and sometimes detached from it. It is far better than the recording he made 11 years later for the Polish Mewa label.


His three Gramophon/Polydor Nocturne recordings are among his most important, showing him in the slow, lyrical repertoire that highlights the contrast between Romanticism and modernism - and indeed, between the earlier tradition Koczalski represents and the more streamlined Romanticism of his peers. The Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2 is the most-annotated of any of Chopin’s works, with 14 known variants that Chopin wrote in his various students’ scores (seven of these are near-duplications from different sources.) Koczalski recorded this nocturne three times, but only in this one - the second - does he includes variant readings.


Koczalski plays the eight variants from Mikuli that are listed in the Paderewski edition: Bars 4, 8, 14-15, 16, 22-23, 24, 31-32, and the end. In addition, he plays slight variants in bar 15 (adding an F sharp between the grace-note F and the second-beat G), bar 21 (adding another G before the grace notes preceding the first beat) and bar 25 (C instead of C-flat on the first beat of the left hand). The Paderewski editors write, “Though they are subtle, elegant, and certainly the work of a master, in our opinion they may easily give rise to a certain préciosité and overburden the work, especially if they are not executed with the greatest precision and delicacy.” Koczalski is up to the challenge, and the results are enchanting.


Comparing Koczalski’s recording of the Nocturne, Op. 32 No. 1 with Artur Rubinstein's from the same period throws Koczalski’s archaisms into sharp relief. The first difference one notices is mood: Rubinstein’s narrative is clear and direct, while Koczalski’s wealth of detail is almost bewildering at first hearing, with such nuances as the finger legato in bar 7 (24 to 29 seconds), where he holds the right-hand B through the change of harmony, or the lingering on the chromatically ascending bass line in bar 11 (37 seconds).


Rubinstein’s hands are not always exactly together - for instance, the right hand slightly lags at the climactic notes in bars 39 and 60 - but these instances are rare. In contrast, except for the first beat of bar one, Koczalski’s right hand lags behind the left on all accented beats and most of the unaccented ones until the 3rd beat of bar 6. Koczalski’s non-simultaneities are not capricious: for instance, bars 1 to 2, and 3 to 4 have the same pattern of accompaniment arpeggiation, with the third-beat dissonance prominently rolled, the on-the-way-to-resolution downbeat slightly rolled, and the third beat resolution not rolled at all. In this instance, non-simultaneity is used to highlight harmonic tension. Koczalski’s hands-apart approach actually enables him to keep a stricter tempo than Rubinstein. For instance, Rubinstein broadens slightly in bar 3 to give the 16th notes time to breathe, while Koczalski lets these 16th notes breathe by slowing them without modifying the tempo, so the last note arrives late.


Koczalski gives the new material beginning in bar 8 (29 seconds) a very different approach - the hands are much more together, the tempo slightly faster, and subtle voicing creates a hushed mood. The contrast is greater here than in Rubinstein’s recording. In this nocturne, the sound world Koczalski creates is richer and more intimate than Rubinstein’s, but one that is not as easily penetrated.


In the Nocturne Op. 48 No. 1 the ravishing tone quality in the opening of the middle section (bar 25, 1 minute 32 seconds) is notable indeed.


Koczalski took justifiable pride in this recording of the Chopin Etudes. His approach is singularly delicate and un-muscular and he plays them as music first and etudes second. Not that they are technically deficient, as Koczalski’s spare pedaling leaves no room for bluffing, and the few blemishes are no more than you’d expect from the days before editing, when pianists generally recorded two etudes per side. His tempos are mainstream. Compared to other 78-rpm era cycles, Koczalski’s Op. 10 set lasts about a minute longer than Edward Kilenyi’s and a minute less than Robert Lortat’s (the shortest and longest, respectively); his Op. 25 is also roughly in the middle.


Several of the etudes are unusually dry, or dry in unusual moments: At the end of Op. 10 No. 4, Koczalski ignores what is in most early editions Chopin’s only pedal marking. Op. 25 Nos. 1 and 11 are possibly the least-pedaled renditions of these popular etudes. Another common feature in the more lyrical passages is the rapid strumming of chords discussed above, especially noticeable in Op. 10 Nos. 3 and 6 and the Nouvelle Etude in A-flat. Mikuli’s admonition to avoid “the smashing fortissimo that insults every sensitive ear” is very much in evidence: The endings of Op. 25 Nos. 5, 11, and 12 hardly sound like the fff for which Chopin calls, and when Koczalski changes Chopin’s dynamics, it’s nearly always to reduce them.


The most inexplicable moment in this set occurs in Koczalski’s light and atmospheric Op. 10 No. 2: He omits one bar, from the end of the first beat of bar 23 to the end of the first beat of bar 24 (37 seconds). Whether intentional or not, this crept in somewhere after his earlier Polydor recording of circa 1928 (Marston 52063-2). He plays the end of bar 35 leggiero (:55) - exactly the spot where Chopin writes sempre legato.


In Koczalski’s performance of the famous “Black Key” etude (Op. 10 No. 5), his lingering at the start of bar 57 (55 seconds) is such a striking gesture that one wonders if it comes from Chopin via Mikuli. (He does the same thing in his 1924 recording on Marston 52063-2 and on the Odeon recording on CD One of this set.) In this case, the evidence is only slightly more persuasive than it is with the Berceuse. Michalowski and Rosenthal both recorded this piece, and while it is true that they both emphasize this bar, they don’t do it in the same way. Like Koczalski, Michalowski lingers, but much less; Rosenthal marks bar 57 by slowing the tempo in the preceding two bars, and resuming tempo at bar 57. But the fact that they do anything at all is intriguing, because there is no widespread tradition among other early pianists who recorded the piece. Only Friedman and Carlo Zecchi do what Koczalski does - Friedman much more, Zecchi much less. Backhaus and Leopold Godowsky follow Rosenthal’s practice in their recordings, though doing less, and many pianists - including Cortot, Mark Hambourg, Vladimir de Pachmann, Paderewski, and Francis Planté - do nothing special with the tempo at these bars. Ferruccio Busoni as usual stands apart, slowing slightly before bar 57 but not immediately resuming tempo.


In the Op. 10 No. 6 Etude Koczalski plays the grace-note in bar 8 in an archaic manner, after the bass note (22 seconds). As is common with Koczalski in slow, expressive repertoire, the left hand generally anticipates the right on strong beats, with a prominent exception being the melodic climax at bar 32 (1 minute 27 seconds.) In this instance Koczalski uses non-simultaneous attacks as his default method, and a squarely struck chord as an accent.


Koczalski’s performance of Op. 25 No. 7 is one of the most beautiful of all recordings of this piece. His rubato is restrained, but a look at bars 21-24 shows what a rich interpretation it is. There’s the subito piano on the third beat of bar 21 (1 minute 29 seconds), the slight lingering on the beginning of the left-hand ascending figure in bar 22 (1:31), the expressively delayed left hand accent in bar 23 (1 minute 33 seconds), and the impetuously early left hand in bar 24 (1 minute 37 seconds). The middle section from 2 minutes to 2 minutes 27 seconds is lushly pedaled, giving a dreamy effect that’s all the more ravishing for being such a rarity in Koczalski’s playing.


The forceful Op. 25 No. 10 is surprisingly successful. The accents in bars 17-18 are marvelous (32-:35 seconds); of the early pianists who recorded this piece, Koczalski is alone in making the triple forte, marked in bar 27, the arrival, instead of the preceding eighth-note (54 seconds); and the middle section is meltingly beautiful.


Op. 25 No. 11 is one of Koczalski’s most audacious interpretations, substituting nimbleness and clarity for power. It especially sounds as if the performer could be Chopin himself - a pianist sometimes criticized for being unable to create a large tone. Nowhere else does Koczalski ignore Chopin’s dynamic markings as he does here. For instance, Chopin marks bar 23 forte, but Koczalski plays piano, if not pp (51 seconds). It’s a compelling effect, but in this case it’s difficult to reconcile Koczalski’s dynamics with Chopin’s.


His set of Chopin’s Preludes is more of a mixed blessing. Here the most satisfying performances are, not surprisingly, the pieces most suited to Koczalski’s light and fleet fingers: No. 3 in G, sinuously undulating and framed by moments of leggiero playing; the ethereally fluttering No. 10 in C sharp minor, and the delicate and suave No. 23 in F. Other highlights are the famous No. 4 in E minor, which Koczalski begins with a four-bar decrescendo and presents at a brisk pace that brings out Chopin’s designation of two beats per bar, instead of the usually-heard four; and No. 18 in F minor, which builds impressively after an unusually subdued opening. (Chopin, not-unusually for him, does not designate an initial dynamic level.)


By now the reader will have the idea that Koczalski is something of a hit-or-miss interpreter; one prelude - even one phrase within a prelude - will enchant you while its neighbor puts you off. But these CDs show that the pianist had great range. He’s a consummate miniaturist, but the few larger works he recorded also display a strong architectural sense.


The ballades show Koczalski in large-scale works, and as a rule these performances have a sweep and grandeur that is absent from his recordings of smaller works - almost as if Koczalski took Chopin's dynamic marking of double forte to mean something else in an eight-minute piece than in a two-minute piece. The Ballade No. 1 features a lovely, limpid tone in the opening theme, though it is achieved partly at the expense of Chopin’s notation, which calls for the lower notes in the right hand to be held. Robert Philip (in his book, Performing Music In the Age of Recording) has pointed out Koczalski’s insightful interpretation of the left-hand accents in bars 24-25 (1 minute 9 seconds to 1 minute 14 seconds.) Instead of hammering the notes out, he begins them slightly before the beat, imparting elasticity to the phrase.


Ballade No. 2 is the least satisfying. The left-hand anticipations in the middle section’s lyrical passages (i.e., bars 98-107, beginning 3 minutes 6 seconds) seem unmotivated and repetitive, and the coda, despite many exciting touches, is marred by too many memory slips. The un-notated clearing of the sound in bar 123 (3 minutes 50 seconds) is not an interpretive choice, but the break between the two sides of the original recording. In bars 169 and 173 of the coda (beginning 5 minutes 2 seconds), Koczalski plays D-natural on the 3rd beat. The original editions are inconsistent here. Chopin’s manuscript and the French edition have D sharp, the English edition has D-natural, and the German edition has D sharp in bar 169 and D natural in bar 173.


Aside from its subdued ending, the Ballade No. 3 is the best of Koczalski’s ballades. The repeated left hand E-flat in bar 7 (14 seconds) is from the German edition. At the end of this bar and the beginning of the next, Koczalski interprets Chopin’s hairpin crescendo-diminuendo as a ritard-a tempo. Eric Heidsieck has suggested that, originally, hairpins denoted tempo first and only secondarily volume, and Koczalski’s adoption of it here supports Heidsieck’s thesis. (Heidsieck cites this very passage from the Ballade.) Like most pianists, Koczalski brings out an un-notated countermelody in bars 109 to 112 (for 6 seconds starting at 3 minutes 26 seconds) by emphasizing certain left-hand top notes and right-hand bottom notes. This tradition dates back at least to de Pachmann, who was the earliest-born pianist to record this piece, as well as the first to record it.


It’s easy to quibble with the light and detached left-hand chords near the beginning of Ballade No. 4, but they leave Koczalski plenty of space from which to build, and build he does, to a thrilling climax and a remarkably clear coda. As with the Second Ballade’s similarly lyrical theme, Koczalski arpeggiates the first statement of the Ballade’s second theme (bars 80 to 99, 2 minutes 58 seconds to 3 minutes 36 seconds).


To mention one of his few non-Chopin recordings: The remarkably Schubert-like German Dances by Mozart (called “Waltzes” on the original record label) are very freely transcribed, very possibly by Koczalski himself.




The Ballades bring us full circle. Several features of Koczalski’s playing definitely come from Mikuli, including the generally spare pedaling (when Koczalski diverges from Chopin’s pedal indications, he usually uses less than the composer asks for, not more) and the avoidance of prolonged loud playing. Many of his interpretive techniques are holdovers from an earlier era. His lavish use of non-simultaneous attacks - especially to emphasize downbeats but also to heighten expression in other parts of a phrase - is far more typical of earlier pianists than those of his own generation. Even his tendency to treat interpretive marks as suggestions instead of commands is far more common among Koczalski’s elders than among his peers. All this suggests that Koczalski’s performances represent an earlier aesthetic approach, and given his education, there’s no reason to doubt that much of it is Chopin’s.


But the picture isn’t at all clear when it comes to any particular interpretive conception or gesture, such as the striking interpretive details in Op. 10 No. 5 or Op. 57. Even if we could verify that some gesture came from Chopin, it may have been a momentary inspiration that the composer didn’t deem important enough to notate. (The situation is different for the authentic variants in, for example, the Op. 9 No. 2 Nocturne.)


The likelihood that Koczalski’s interpretive approach resembles Chopin’s own does not mean that we have to like it. On the other hand, it’s illogical to downplay Koczalski’s importance simply because one dislikes his interpretations. As Olga Samaroff wisely wrote, “Tastes and standards change; contemporary criticism reflects existing taste and it is difficult to know - in later periods - whether musical performance that has been praised in one era would arouse the enthusiasm of succeeding generations.” Whether one finds him enchanting, irritating, or both, Koczalski's legacy of recordings is additional evidence that the road to authentic Chopin interpretation lies through knowledge of the earliest recorded pianists …. as well as the scores.


Mark Arnest is a composer, pianist, music director and music theory teacher in Colorado Springs, Colorado