Koczalski plays CHOPIN = (incl. Piano Con. No. 2) – Music & Arts (2 CDs)

by | Apr 30, 2012 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Koczalski plays CHOPIN = 3 Mazurkas; 3 Nocturnes; Prelude, Op. 45; 6 Waltzes; Fantasie in F Minor, Op. 49; “Military” Polonaise in A Major, Op. 40, No. 1; 3 Ecossaises, Op. 72; Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58; Fantasie-Impromptu, Op. 66; Impromptu No. 1 in A-flat Major, Op. 29; “Raindrop” Prelude in D-flat Major; Etude No. 8 in F, Op. 10, No. 8; Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21 – Raoul von Koczalski, piano/ Berlin Radio Orchestra/ Sergiu Celibidache – Music & Arts CD-1261 (2 CDs), 65:56; 74:25 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
The art of Raoul von Koczalski (1884-1948) has endured courtesy of those few Chopin-specialist collectors, some of whom were lucky enough to know of those archives preserved by Dr. Werner Unger on his Archiphon label. Audio engineer and restoration producer Mark Obert-Thorn has assembled an outstanding collation of Koczalski’s broadcast recordings from the German Radio archives, 1945 and 1948, assembled at RIAS studio sessions and from off-the-air broadcast sources in East Berlin. Happily, the set boasts over 70 minutes of previously unissued material. Koczalski’s major claim to Chopin fame lay in his having “studied” with Karol Mikuli, perhaps Chopin’s favorite pupil. The obvious result of whatever “authenticity” lies in Koczalski’s style makes itself felt in the rhythmic dimension of his playing, particularly in the accented legato phrasing, and in the freedom of rubato evidenced in such familiar pieces as the “Raindrop “ Prelude and the “Minute” Waltz. 
The ten recordings of 6 February 1948 at RIAS prove instructive: the piano tone per se remains thin, but the variety of touch and rhythmic articulation reveal Koczalski as a knowing exponent of the Chopin style, his pacing truly lyrical to retain the bel canto elements in a richly ornamented instrumental medium. Finger slips by Koczalski do not intrude upon the fastidious taste of his execution, the left hand especially steady in establishing a solid pulse while the right hand displays liquidity and the illusion of improvised freedom. The A Minor Waltz provides a classic example of the sense of periodicity that applies through which an elastic thread persists. I like Koczalski’s way with the large Mazurka in B Minor, Op. 33, No. 4, which opens the first disc. We know that metric ambiguity pervades these national dances, and that freedom of accent binds itself to freedom of poetic expression. The degree of sensuousness, however, seems to me minimal, given what Michelangeli or Moravec can do with the Op. 45 Prelude or the E Minor Nocturne, Op. Posth., from which Horowitz, too, could elicit all manner of feminine appeal. The “Military” Polonaise by Koczalski has zal, certainly, but the piano tone feels chastely dry.
A 9 February 1948 Mazurka in A-flat Major, Op. 50, No. 2 demonstrates some subtle rhythmic and tempo shifts in Koczalski’s palette, playing off triple and duple meters. Commentator and editor Allan Evans remains less convinced by Koczalski’s efforts in the larger Chopin scores, which he feels baffle Koczalski’s capabilities. The F Minor Fantasie (5 April 1948) does not appear to me either disjointed or willful; rather, it explodes impulsively, the scale and sweeping gestures reminiscent of Cortot’s idiosyncratic romanticism. The central section, a melancholy ballade or intimate song, feels quite spontaneous.  The outer sections assume a polonaise-like militancy, and I find Koczalski’s rubato more Polish than French in character. The liquidly fleet runs display a decidedly diaphanous quality in Koczalski’s arsenal. The B Major Nocturne, Op. 32, No. 1, like that in B-flat Minor, Op. 9, No. 1, enjoys deft and canny pacing, eminently vocal and wistful. Koczalski’s grasp of Chopin’s interior voicings, his idiosyncratic polyphony, rings true, and the taut line flows over wondrous degrees of light and shade. The Fantasie-Impromptu from 1945 Berlin over-reverberates as a recording, but the startling facility and muscularity of the gestures undeniably achieves a nobly lyrical grace, the trill and sliding grace-notes marvelously nuanced.
Disc two opens with the F Major Etude (5 April 1948), which I find mannered, but perhaps in that 19th Century style that supposedly bows to Mikuli’s influence. The A-flat Impromptu (9 February 1948) I would label “serviceable,” but its efficiency underplays the poetry. The Sonata in B Minor (5 April 1948) forever presents the problem of musical and logical continuity: Koczalski makes a good case for the meandering first movement, in which his own mercurial divisions of the bar and sudden thrusts to adjust for key change prove apt. The last movement, however, lacks resonant drama, and I feel it suits the 19th Century salon better than the concert hall. Some chord progressions, too, might raise a purist’s eyebrow. I like Koczalski’s Chopin Waltzes (24 October 1948): quicksilver filigree and wrist control play wittily and stylishly in the F Major, Op. 34, No. 3; he feels at ease adding extra ornaments to the A Minor Waltz, injecting an extra beat with a ritard, then speeding a bit to replace “stolen time.” Often his idiosyncratic fingering brings out a voice lead often suppressed in others’ renditions. Liquidity of phrase and canny application of pulse make the pearly A-flat Major, Op. 64, No. 3 tenderly nostalgic. The three Ecossaise (24 October 1948) sparkle in more Polish accents than Scottish colors, tripping in deft hues across a sensitive palette.
The F Minor Concerto with the willful Sergiu Celibidache (25 September 1948) from East Berlin displays on a more extensive level the singing rubato Koczalski could apply while meshing with the orchestra’s own grand gestures. The application of Bellini’s operatic cantabile to instrumental writing finds a spirited vehicle in this, Chopin’s first effort in concerto writing. Celibidache, too, knows that ad hoc fioritura and the broadening of the musical measure constitute an essential aspect of the Chopin style. The orchestral tuttis under Celibidache quite gallop episodically before they retreat under piano’s lithe song. The first movement Maestoso offers Koczalski manifold opportunities to project an improvisatory tapestry on the keyboard part. The lovely Larghetto’s middle section presents Koczalski’s trump card, an avid taut cantabile line that can evolve into a demonized parlando that transcends a mere salon context. A splendidly wrought mazurka, with col legno violin added for effect, the Allegro vivace enjoys a breezy debonair sensibility, Koczalski and orchestral forces in tripping, amiable harmony.
—Gary Lemco

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