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Raul KOCZALSKI (1885-1948)
Chamber Works 2
Piano Trio No. 1 in D major, Op 76 [29:47]
Piano Trio No. 2 in G minor, Op 88 [18:53]
Piano Trio No. 3 in B minor, Op 92 [20:13]
Dariusz Drzazga (violin); Maciej Łacny (cello); Karol Garwoliński (piano)
rec. May 2020, Sala Koncertowa Filharmonii Lubelskiej, Poland
World Première Recordings

Raul Koczalski was born in Warsaw, and received his first piano lessons from his mother. Having made his public debut in 1888 at the age of four, his parents took him to play for Anton Rubinstein, who foresaw the possibility of a performing career. Koczalski never studied at a conservatory but continued with private lessons on the piano, in composition, and instrumentation. At the age of seven he gave concerts, and at nine he was appearing in major European cities as a virtuoso pianist. His thousandth concert was given in Leipzig in 1896, and by the age of twelve he had received awards from a number of European sovereigns and had a very extensive repertoire. During WW1 he was interned in Germany, and continued living there in the 20s and 30s, while re-establishing himself as a concert pianist. But he then found himself interned in the country again during WW2, until he was able to return, in 1945, to Poznań in his native Poland, accepting a post as professor at the city’s State Higher School of Music, which subsequently became known as the Ignacy Jan Paderewski Academy of Music in 1981. In terms of compositions, Koczalski’s output includes nearly 200 published works, comprising symphonic and chamber repertoire, concertos, operas, ballets, piano solos, and songs.

The Piano Trio in D, Op 76 was completed in 1914, and opens with an energetic Allegro, which is followed by a high-spirited Vivo, con anima in B major, which, after the briefest of introductions, assumes the role of an effective piece of salon music in the style of a Chopin Mazurka crossed with a Viennese Waltz. The tempo slows for the trio section in the minor key (incorrectly shown as Molto mene in the English translation, but given correctly as Molto meno in the original Polish text), leaving a reprise of the opening to round off this alluring little confection. There is real poignancy in the slow movement that follows, with some attractive writing in thirds to enhance the melodic effect even more – without doubt the emotional heart of the Trio as a whole. As he will do again in the Second Trio, the composer favours a Theme and Variations to provide the finale. After the extensive theme is delivered by the piano, Koczalski then proceeds to develop it in five variations, the first four of which are dances – a majestic Polonaise, Minuet, Gavotte and Valse, leaving a slow Romance to round things off in true peace and calm. Again, particularly in the one-in-a-bar Valse, there is a distinct salon-music feel to the proceedings.

The Piano Trio No 2 in G minor drops down to just three movements, although, as with the first trio, the finale is another set of Tema con variazioni. It was composed in 1916, and as such is the product of his first period of internment. Perhaps as a consequence of being confined to Germany, the composer chooses to start his second trio with an Italianate Barcarolle, even though this form was actually quite popular with Polish composers, and there was, of course, Chopin’s own iconic take on the form in his Barcarolle, Op 60. Once more, the second movement (Andantino) is in waltz-time, but in a more gently expressive vein than heard before. The trio, in the minor key, takes us out of the salon, and into the countryside, with its bare fifths and modal harmonies imbuing it with a folk-music feel. As mentioned above, the finale comprises a set of six variations based on a quasi-religious theme announced by solo piano. Unlike the first trio, on this occasion the variations aren’t specific dances or other recognised musical entities, and there are now six of them. The religioso feels permeates through the end, which again is calm and understated.

The Piano Trio in B major was composed in 1918, and might be seen to witness a new chapter in the composer’s life. Initially it doesn’t feel much different from its two predecessors, but as the music unfolds, it is not difficult to discern some expansion in Koczalski’s harmonic palette, a greater use of chromaticism, and a more profound sense of emotion and heightened expressive qualities. The second movement, an almost Valse-triste-like movement initially in the minor key, again shows the composer happy to explore more chromatic harmonies, remoter key relationships, and greater individual chord complexity. All in all it’s a sheer delight to listen to. No Theme-and-Variations for the finale this time, but instead a powerfully-pulsating Allegro appassionato that contrasts with calmer chorale-like passages of increasingly richer harmonies. After a short pause in the music, there is a calmer interlude, but this is short-lived, as the music rushes to a close, ending this time in triumph, rather than understated calm, as happened with the two previous finales.

If, like me, initially you weren’t familiar with Koczalski or his musical style, you would probably take a look back in time, to see what else was being written around the time of WW I. For example, from 1914 we could pick Ravel’s Piano Trio, from 1916 it might be Bartók’s Suite for Piano, Op 11, or, from 1918, Elgar’s Violin Sonata, all three of which would tend to make Koczalski’s works here sound distinctly retro, even though that could also obtain when comparing Elgar’s work with the Bartók’s. Koczalski’s style is enshrined in the spirit of late-nineteenth-century Romanticism, and his trios, for example, could quite easily be from the pen of Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894), or Xaver Scharwenka (1850-1924), to name but a few. But having said that is by no means to belittle them in terms of their structure, emotional content, or the listener’s ultimate enjoyment. Indeed, all three trios are extremely well put together, and speak directly to the heart, even if the language might seem a tad dated for the time. Personally I have come to love them, and the Polish Acte Préalable label is doing a sterling job by recording all these hitherto unknown treasures. In fact, a number of Koczalski’s concertos and songs have already been the subject of easily-searchable MWI reviews, as well as Volume 1 in the present Chamber Music Series.

The works have all been faithfully recorded, and the sleeve notes are certainly comprehensive, even if, occasionally the English translation doesn’t always bear the mark of an indigenous speaker. Taking all this into consideration, I would love to sum up by saying that the playing is also commensurate with the high standards of the rest of the work on the CD. But here I do have a slight caveat which troubles me somewhat.

At the very opening of the First Trio, you are greeted with a full-bodied piano sound, which is similarly complemented by the rich tone of the cello. Unfortunately this doesn’t seem to be the case with the violin, whose opening gambit sounds a tad smudged. From here on, while there are still many instances of fine and expressive playing from violinist Dariusz Drzazga, I feel it tends to fall slightly short of the higher standards set by the other two players, and just lacks the necessary power that the music cries out for. This, of course, could be a question of recording balance, but at times, when the two strings are heard in octaves, the lower register of the cello always dominates the writing, rather than blending imperceptibly with the top voice. It’s always difficult to decide who ‘leads’ a piano trio. Obviously, the pianist has the capability to drown out the other two players, and, unlike in a string-quartet set-up, is the only performer to have the full score in front of them, rather than just separate instrumental parts. On the other hand, with a particularly assured lead violinist, they may well want at least to share in the overall direction of the performance. Interestingly, when teachers of the three respective instruments listen to a live or recorded performance, the consensus nearly always is that their own instrument is not projecting enough, which tends to confirm the extremely subjective nature of instrumental balance in small, mixed ensembles.

Furthermore, I have noticed that bespoke ensembles like the former Borodin, or Beaux Arts Trios, tend to give a more studied reading of a work, than just three players who sometimes might work together. But in today’s challenging world, simply for economic reasons, it would no longer be viable for three players to derive their sole income on the strength of being in just one ensemble, however well-respected this might be.

Perhaps, had the Polish label been able to engage an established piano trio, or come up with a violinist who might have brought a little more to the table, it would have been a tad easier to make the final call on the CD. But, notwithstanding this, as an unashamed romantic, these three Piano Trios by Raul Koczalski are always going to be my kind of music.

Philip R Buttall

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