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Raul KOCZALSKI (1885-1948)
Piano Concerto No.1 in B minor, Op.79 [29:52]
Piano Concerto No.2 in G major, Op.83 [28:44]
Joanna Ławrynowicz (piano)
Podkarpacka Philharmonia Symphony Orchestra im. Artura Malawskiego in Rzeszów/Massimiliano Caldi
rec. 2017, Podkarpacka Philharmonia im. Artura Malawskiego, Poland

There has been an explosion in recordings of 19th and early 20th Century Polish music. In their Romantic Piano Concerto series, Hyperion alone have issued works by such luminaries as Melcer-Szczawinski, Zarzycki and Zelenski, not to mention other, better known composers. As one might expect, Polish companies such as Acte Préalable and Dux have got in on the act, and a glance at the catalogue of the former reveals an astonishing collection of composers whose names I have either never seen before, or who are little known to me.

Here we have another such – Raul Koczalski, whose two piano concertos fill this CD. A quick check on Amazon for other recordings of his music reveals a number of historical recordings that he made as a pianist (review).
The first concerto is thought to date from around 1905, and it opens with an arresting tam-tam stroke, followed by rushing upward strings and then a cymbal crash! It is almost as if he were saying to himself “I will outdo Grieg in the opening of my concerto, not to mention Schumann and Tchaikovsky.”
Of course, such an opening would have made an audience sit up a hundred years ago, and would still do so today. The movement is a vehicle for much declamatory piano writing, and the woodwind play a prominent role introducing the main motif, which is later taken up by the strings. The whole moves in a rhapsodic manner towards a brief yet grandiose ending, in which timpani and brass support the rest of the orchestra in a grand statement.
The 8-minute slow movement is a lyrical gem in which the piano does not seek to dominate the rest of the orchestra. By itself it is almost worth the cost of the disc, and should anyone at Classic FM be reading this, I can promise that it would be a hit with listeners. The last movement is more rhythmic than the preceding two, a Polish folk-dance, if you like, which, like the first movement culminates in a short but blazing finale.

In this first concerto, Koczalski doesn’t actually remind me much of Rachmaninov, who was better at composing really memorable material, and also better at giving the listener the feel that the work (or movement) has a ‘focal point’ to which the performance must aim. Having said that, the Pole certainly writes pleasing stuff, and in his “not quite as good as Rach” manner, reminds me of Bortkiewicz. It must be said though, that most composers of its time would be delighted to be able to write such crowd-pleasing music.
The second concerto from about eight years later in 1914 is a bit less showy, but still manages to present the listener with a romantic effusion. Like the first, it is in three movements and gives the pianist plenty of opportunity for virtuoso (and muscular) display. As in the first concerto, the first movement is longer than the two succeeding ones together, and the composer adopts the same type of arresting opening, but this time the solo piano takes the lead, gradually increasing in volume and complexity, underpinned by a slow drum crescendo and, at the at the climax, cymbals fff, followed by cascading strings winding down to the main body of the movement. This is a rhapsodic interplay between soloist and orchestra, leading to a short peroration. The slow movement is lovely, very lovely in fact, although its principal melody is not in the least bit Rachmaninovian. As before, the composer winds up the last movement in a grandiose flourish. Ultimately, the overall compositional pattern is the same as in the first concerto, and it would be interesting to hear if he developed his style in his other four piano concertos.
This CD has given me much pleasure and I hope that Acte Préalable will be able to record more of his six piano concertos. Then there are his two symphonies, a symphonic poem, violin concerto, cello concerto, ballets, nine piano sonatas and operas, not to mention 200 songs and assorted chamber works.
The recording is full, nicely resonant with excellent support from the conductor and orchestra, and the pianist, Joanna Ławrynowicz, is fully up to the virtuoso and poetic demands of the writing. The piano is set forward in the recorded acoustic, but not excessively so. Documentation in the glossy booklet is very good.
Jim Westhead

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