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Raul KOCZALSKI (1885-1948)
Piano Concerto No.5 in D minor, Op.140 [30:11]
Piano Concerto No.6 in E major, Op.145 [30:15]
Joanna Ławrynowicz, piano
Orkiestra Symfoiczna Filharmonii im Henryka Wieniawskiego w Lublinie/Wojciech Rodek
rec. 2019, Filharmonia Lubelska im. Henryka Wieniawskiego, Poland

This very welcome CD is the third in a series of three devoted to the six piano concerti of Raul Koczalski. I gave a very enthusiastic review to the first CD, which contains recordings by the same pianist of his first and second piano concertos, and that review can be read here. Jonathan Woolf has also reviewed this CD. The exact dates of the fifth and sixth concertos are not known but based on other evidence, it seems likely that the fifth was composed in 1942 and the sixth in 1945, after or near to, the end of the war.

It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the first concerto begins with a crash, bang and wallop. Not so the fifth and sixth, whose styles are about as far removed from the early concerto as can be imagined. Should we be surprised at this? If we consider the original version of the first concerto of Rachmaninov, written in 1891, and the first version of his fourth appearing some thirty-five years later in 1926, they too sound totally dissimilar, and Koczalski, like Rachmaninov, had experienced upheavals due to war and revolution.

His first dates from 1905 and the sixth from forty years later, and in those forty years much had happened to the composer. Specifically, in September 1939, mirroring an event in 1914, he was summoned to the office of Joseph Goebbels and handed a letter of internment, effectively a form of house arrest in Berlin, where he had lived for a couple of decades as a successful concert pianist and interpreter of Chopin.

The first movement of the fifth is divided into two parts, the first piu mosso (more movement) and the second, meno mosso (less movement). The booklet opines that this bipartite structure empathises, through music, the expressionist idea of the image of a man divided by extreme emotions. Whether the music will withstand such a deep interpretation, I am not qualified to judge, but one can enjoy it without such overtones coming into play. The music is, to my ears, rather Schumannesque, in that the poetic variation between its sections is achieved without undue bombast or extremity of expression. The composer’s melodic invention is on display, though I think it fair to say that no great tune appears or stunning climax is experienced, but the music is pleasant indeed.

I am somewhat baffled by the booklet’s description of the quietly romantic second movement, which emphasizes the dialogue between piano and harp. I cannot hear any harp at all, not even during the passages for solo piano, which are themselves unusual. The movement open gently in the orchestra, singing and slightly developing a romantic theme. Then the solo piano enters, playing a ’tune’ which to my ears, suggests a person lightly ambling along (piano right hand), accompanied by someone or something bouncing along in a regular metre (piano left hand). I was expecting to hear the harp here, and so much struggled to do so, that I wondered whether the base-sounding bouncing theme (or just rhythm, really) was being performed in the lowest reaches of the harp. It sounds just like the lower reaches of the piano to me, but the recording may be misleading my ears. Occasionally, the orchestra joins the piano, and then the music briefly (too briefly) swells to give the listener a taste of luscious romanticism, rising to a brief climax capped by a totally unexpected cymbal clash. Then we are back to the ambling theme morphing into a solo version of the opening orchestral tune, which concludes the most unusual movement in a romantic concerto that I have ever heard.

The vivo third movement is largely a dialogue between piano and strings, although the piano is the dominant partner, and perhaps for the first time in the work, it starts to sound like a romantic concerto. The music is swift, occasionally reflective, but in the altercation between the dominant instrument and the orchestra, is very effective if not particularly memorable. The movement ends in a descending cadence for the orchestra.

The last movement, at ten minutes, is more or less the same length as the first. It opens with a rather memorable theme given out by the piano and repeated. Then the orchestra joins in, generating a movement that tends to alternate between sections for solo piano and sections for orchestra. Occasionally the piano plays with the orchestra in a rippling accompaniment, but rarely do they join together to reach the heights of romantic partnership, but then at 8:34 into the movement they get their act together and for the last minute-and-a-half make the most of the opening theme and rise to an enjoyable peroration, which should have been composed to be twice as long as it is.

The sixth concerto was composed immediately after the war when Koczalski moved to the large and historic city of Poznan in Poland. The composer gave its first performance in Leipzig in 1946 and later in Poland as well. It was not enthusiastically received, being described by an acerbic critic as no more than written improvisations. In its melodic cast, it is clearly by the same composer as the fifth. The piano does not tend to dominate, and in the slow movement – the heart of a romantic concerto – the orchestra plays a lovely, succulent melody then elaborated by the solo piano. It seems that the composer is reluctant to adopt the grand manner, allowing as he does an orchestral climax to develop minus grand piano octaves. The scherzo vivace third movement begins skittishly, but then a lovely flowing theme is introduced by the orchestra, and forms the splendid basis of what I consider to be the most immediately attractive movement of the concerto, where the piano plays almost continuously, aiding and abetting the orchestra. At times, I am reminded of the famous Litolff Scherzo, but then Koczalski briefly relaxes into pure romanticism, before finishing in a sprightly manner.

The finale begins portentously on the orchestra, the piano joining in, but by 90 seconds in, the mood relaxes somewhat as the music becomes free-flowing, with the piano lightly accompanying the orchestra. However, we are soon back into solemn mood, and I get the impression that the composer is slowly edging towards a grand finale. Sure enough, at six minutes in a propulsive piano leads the orchestra to a cymbal crash, followed by a solo peroration continued by a brief, trumpet led orchestral and piano crescendo.

To summarise, these concertos repay repeated listening. Gone are the splashy impactive gestures of Koczalski’s youthful concertos, replaced by much more subtle musical developments. At first listening I was not particularly attracted to the works, but repeated listening has made me change my mind.

Acte Prealable’s presentation is excellent, with a nicely detailed glossy booklet. The pianist is the same as on the previous two discs, and is clearly more than up to the task. The orchestra plays well and the recording is fine. On reading the description of the processes leading to the recording of this series, it is clear that the three CDs have been a created by enthusiasm and determination on the part of Acte Prealable and the performers. They and Koczalski deserve successful sales of the discs.
Jim Westhead
Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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