Witold Malcuzyński, the son of well-to-do parents, grew up in Warsaw and on his mother’s estate in Wilno. His first piano teacher was Jerzy Lefeld, but his main period of tuition was with Josef Turczynski, a pupil of Busoni, at the Warsaw Conservatory. His parents however were uneasy about their son becoming a professional pianist, and insisted that he combine his musical studies with those of law and philosophy at the University of Warsaw. After graduating from the Warsaw Conservatory, Malcuzyński took some lessons from Ignacy Paderewski at the home of the celebrated pianist at Morges in Switzerland. Paderewski had an enormous influence on the young Malcuzyński, as he later recalled: ‘After a few months with him, I was no longer the same person, and my conception of the piano as a means of expressing feelings had been completely transformed.’
After winning the third prize at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw (Yakov Zak took first place) Malcuzyński went to Paris to continue his studies with Marguerite Long and Isidor Philipp. After his Paris debut, made during World War II, he toured extensively in Portugal and South America giving more than seventy concerts. He then travelled to the United States, giving a very successful debut in Carnegie Hall; but rather than build on his American success by giving more concerts there, Malcuzyński returned to war-torn Europe, appearing frequently in England, France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland and Scandinavia. It was the concerts to celebrate the centenary of the death of Chopin in 1949 that led to Malcuzyński being heard throughout the world in places such as Australia, India, New Zealand and Ceylon (Sri Lanka).
In 1958 Malcuzyński returned to Poland after an absence of twenty years. In a two-week period in February he played nine concerts, four of them in Warsaw. He was warmly received wherever he played in Poland and most of the concerts were sold out. On one occasion he gave ten encores, and the newspapers reported that Malcuzyński was ‘…a pianist who is very much our own, one who upholds the great tradition of “Romantic” pianism, of Paderewski and Slivinski. People have need of such playing: frank, generous, personal, human in the full musical sense of the word and altogether eloquent.’
Identified with the music of Chopin throughout his career, Malcuzyński is often compared to the pupils of Leschetizky, such as Benno Moiseiwitsch and Ignaz Friedman, for his concentration on quality of tone, but he did not continue some of the indulgent habits of the pianists of the generation before him. Indeed, in a review of a London recital of November 1946 a critic stated that Malcuzyński was ‘…one of those pianists in whom a natural physical endowment has combined with an acute musical sensibility to produce a virtuoso of the first rank… he is the most unsentimental and unaffected interpreter of Chopin we have heard for a long while.’ Not only was Malcuzyński praised for his control and technique, but also for his sensitive emotion. It is in smaller-scale works such as Chopin’s mazurkas that his refinement of character, taste and style come to the fore, but he also played works of Liszt, and his interpretation of the Piano Sonata in B minor was highly regarded. Some of the big Romantic concertos were also in Malcuzyński’s repertoire including Tchaikovsky’s No. 1, Liszt’s No. 2 and Rachmaninov’s No. 3. It is extraordinary to relatethatin1947thislatterwork wasbeingdenigratedthus:‘Thesoloist was Mr. Malcuzyński who did all that a brilliant technique and a beautiful quality of tone could do to relieve the banality of Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto in D minor.’
Malcuzyński recorded a fair amount of his repertoire for Columbia and EMI during the late 1940s, late 1950s and early 1960s. In the late 1940s he recorded Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor Op. 21 and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op. 30 with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Paul Kletzki; and Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major with the Philharmonia and Walter Susskind, plus some solo works. These concerto recordings were issued on 78rpm discs and appeared later on LP discs. Of these early recordings the most interesting is of the Theme and Variations in B flat Op. 3 by his compatriot Karol Szymanowski. Made in November 1946, just four days before a very successful London recital, it shows some of the pianist’s best qualities. During the LP era Malcuzyński again recorded Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, this time with the London Symphony Orchestra and Walter Susskind, along with Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 1 Op. 23 and Rachmaninov’s Concerto No. 3 Op. 30. The Rachmaninov, recorded during a visit to Poland, is particularly fine, although his earlier recording of the work, while less controlled, is more exciting. Much Chopin was recorded during the early 1960s including the waltzes, polonaises, ballades and Sonatas in B flat minor Op. 35 and B minor Op. 58. Perhaps his best recordings from this period are a group of fifteen mazurkas by Chopin, and although very different to those of Ignaz Friedman, these mazurka recordings are some of the best to be put onto disc for their style, charm, poise and elegance.
For Columbia Malcuzyński also recorded Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor Op. 15 and the Variations and Fugue on a theme of Handel Op. 24; Franck’s Variations Symphoniques and Prélude, Choral et Fugue; Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor and Rhapsodie Espagnole; Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue BWV 903, Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ Sonata Op. 57; and a recital disc which included works by Paderewski and Scriabin.
A compact disc of an Italian broadcast of a live recital from 1963, which also included Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ Sonata, does not show Malcuzyński at his best. Towards the end of his life, on a visit to Poland, he recorded Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor, Vallée d’Obermann and two of the Sonetti di Petrarca for the Muza label.
With his elegant good looks and bearing, charming stage manner, presence and style, Malcuzyński was a favourite pianist with the public during his lifetime. He toured often and collaborated with many of the greatest orchestras and conductors including Dimitri Mitropoulos, Otto Klemperer, Pierre Monteux and André Cluytens, but is now poorly represented on compact disc. His early Columbia recordings have been issued by Pearl, whilst an excellent two-disc collection of Chopin including the fifteen mazurkas, waltzes and B minor Sonata was issued by EMI in 1994. The Rachmaninov and Chopin concerto recordings from the late 1940s appeared on the Dante label. Another two-disc set published by Disky of Chopin’s B flat minor Sonata, six polonaises and four ballades should be approached with caution as the third movement of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is missing from this reissue.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).