Raoul Koczalski’s first piano lessons were from his mother, but he changed teachers and began to take instruction from Julian Gadowski. He then made his debut at the age of four in 1888 at a private salon in Warsaw and immediately embarked on a tour of Russia, playing sixty concerts between September 1888 and April 1889. During the tour he met and played for Anton Rubinstein who was greatly impressed. Koczalski was, of course, a child prodigy, and by the age of seven had composed forty-six works; at the age of eleven, by which time he was playing the standard repertoire of Chopin and Liszt, he had given over one thousand concerts. Aged nine, he had conducted his own Légende Symphonique in Berlin and Leipzig and was playing the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ Sonata Op. 53 in recital, a reviewer referring to the fact that Koczalski had studied it with Hans von Bülow. The same year he played Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in Hamburg.
In 1891 Koczalski moved to Lemberg where he had some lessons with Ludwig Marek a few months before his death, plus lessons in instrumentation from Henryk Jarecki. Marek was a pupil of Liszt and Mikuli, and upon his death Koczalski then studied for four summers with Karl Mikuli himself (1821–1897), a pupil of Chopin. Koczalski wrote of these lessons in a book published in 1936. Most important to the young boy was the way in which Mikuli analysed the works they studied together, revealing their spiritual and architectural qualities. Every aspect of playing the piano was addressed by Mikuli: ‘Strictly based on Chopin’s method, his teaching was so revolutionary that even today it commands all my admiration…’ Koczalski went on to say that Mikuli stressed above all ‘…the care for authenticity with which Chopin’s works must be approached. Here there is no camouflage, no cheap rubato and no languishing or useless contortions.’
On 10 May 1893 the eight-year-old Koczalski ‘…who has created so great a sensation in Berlin, Vienna and other continental cities’ made his debut at Prince’s Hall in London and by 21 June was giving his fourth London recital, at St James’s Hall. In 1895 he gave five recitals of Chopin’s music at the Salle Érard in Paris where critics favourably compared him to Anton Rubinstein.
Koczalski made the transition from wunderkind to finished artist remarkably well and his early experiences do not seem to have affected his later life. During his teens he was appointed court pianist to the Shah of Persia. Between the wars he established himself as one of the foremost interpreters of Chopin and on his return to London in November 1924 he gave a series of four recitals of Chopin’s music. After commenting on the fact that Koczalski used music for the whole performance a critic continued, ‘M. Koczalski is a player of quite exceptional powers (he can do with a Chopin scale or ornament what only Pachmann at his best could do with it)… it soon became clear that he is no more superior to the gloss on the text or the pitfalls of personal interpretation than other performers are. His are different from those of other performers, but often quite as unlike what Chopin wrote.’
Koczalski lived for many years in Berlin, but after World War II he returned to Poland where he was professor at the National Music School in Poznań. In October 1947 he played for the first time after the war in Warsaw and chose Chopin’s E minor Piano Concerto Op. 11. The following year he made preparations for the centenary of Chopin’s death but after concerts in Berlin, Dresden, Zürich and Munich, he gave his last concert in Poznań in November 1948. He left 150 published works including three operas, six piano concertos, a violin concerto, chamber music, eight piano sonatas and twenty-four préludes dedicated to the memory of Chopin.
Although Koczalski made a few acoustic discs and recorded in Poland after World War II, his main series of recordings was made in Germany in the late 1930s for Polydor. After his lessons with Mikuli, Koczalski had no other teacher, whereas Mikuli’s two other famous pupils who recorded, Moriz Rosenthal and Aleksander Michalowski, both studied with other masters; and it may be true to say that Koczalski’s recordings of Chopin are the closest we shall hear to the style the composer envisaged. He recorded much of the Polish composer’s output including the complete études, préludes and ballades, three of the impromptus, some nocturnes, polonaises and the B flat minor Scherzo.
The most notable feature of Koczalski’s playing is its clarity and transparency. It is the opposite of the Leschetizky school of arm-weight and big tone production. In the études he plays with very little sustaining pedal, particularly in Op. 25 No. 1 and No. 11. He does not play the études as vehicles for display, nor as exercises, but plays them as music, the only exception being Op. 10 No. 12 which is delivered in a more Romantic style. The later recording of Chopin’s Berceuse Op. 57 is a model of delicacy and clearly demonstrates Mikuli’s stricture for no cheap rubato or languishing, whilst the recording of the Nocturne in E flat Op. 9 No. 2 is of particular interest as it contains ‘authentic variants’, apparently written into Mikuli’s score by Chopin himself.
All of Koczalski’s Chopin recordings are of interest and a radio broadcast from Berlin in 1948 has survived of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor Op. 21 conducted by Celibidache. Solo pieces by Paderewski, Anton Rubinstein, Mussorgsky, Scriabin, Szymanowski and Bartók also exist from radio broadcasts and have been issued on compact disc by Archiphon.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).