Aleksander Michałowski’s father was a major-general in the Russian army, and his mother (Róża Regulska) was his first piano teacher. Michałowski was a prodigy who by the age of nine could play Weber’s Konzertstück Op. 79. He travelled to Leipzig to continue his studies at the Conservatory where his teachers were Carl Reinecke and Ignaz Moscheles and then went to Berlin to complete his studies with Carl Tausig, one of the greatest pianists of the day.
At his debut, the eighteen-year-old Michałowski played Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor Op. 11 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. From 1874 he lived in Warsaw and gave many concerts throughout Poland and Russia. In Warsaw he met Chopin’s pupil Karl Mikuli (1819–1897) who versed him in the tradition of Chopin’s style of playing. Apparently, Michałowski played the Larghetto from Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor Op. 21 to Franz Liszt who is reported as saying, ‘Only a Pole can play Chopin like that.’
Michałowski’s long career was primarily one of teaching, with posts at the Warsaw Conservatory of Music and School of the Warsaw Music Society which later became the Chopin Higher School of Music. He became an influential force in Polish piano teaching, continuing the tradition of Chopin passed on to him by Mikuli for over forty years. His most famous pupils are Wanda Landowska and Mischa Levitzki. He also gave some lessons to Vladimir Sofronitsky, Władysław Szpilman and Heinrich Neuhaus.
During his years of teaching Michałowski did continue to perform, nor was his repertoire restricted to Chopin. He performed Beethoven’s piano sonatas, which he had studied with Theodore Coccius, and also performed in a piano trio with violinist Stanisław Barcewicz and cellist Aleksander Wierzbiłłowicz. In 1929 Michałowski took part in a concert to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of his debut, performing both of Chopin’s piano concertos with conductor Emil Młynarski. Michałowski was also a composer of short salon pieces, but is remembered for his virtuoso paraphrase of Chopin’s Waltz in D flat Op. 64 No. 1, the ‘Minute’ Waltz, which he recorded a number of times.
Michałowski’s recordings are, in a way, frustrating because they are either in poor sound, or were made when he was very old. His first discs were made in Warsaw in 1905 for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company. Of the nine sides released, most are of Chopin, and there are two versions of his own paraphrase on Chopin’s Waltz in D flat Op. 64 No. 1 which display an extraordinary technique and dexterity, as does an impressive account of the Schubert–Liszt Soirée de Vienne No. 6. He recorded again for the same company in 1912 where only two sides were published. In between these sessions, Michałowski recorded for the Russian label Favorit, again mostly works by Chopin. All of these early acoustic recordings are in poor sound. Michałowski displays a strong rhythm in the Polonaise Op. 40 No. 1, but takes great liberties with the Nocturne in E flat Op. 9 No. 2.
Michałowski recorded a few sides for the Polish label Syrena-Electro around 1929 including the Scherzo in B minor Op. 20 by Chopin, where speed and virtuosity seem to take precedence over musicality.
Michałowski’s last records were made around 1933 or 1934 for Polish Columbia when he was over eighty years old and practically blind. He still retained enough of his extraordinary digital dexterity at this advanced age to record performances of Chopin’s Prélude in B flat minor Op. 28 No. 16 and his own paraphrase on the Waltz in D flat Op. 64 No. 1.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).
Role: Classical Artist