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Koczalski chamber AP0520
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Raul KOCZALSKI (1885-1948)
Chamber Works 4
Sonata in F sharp minor for violin and piano no. 2 op. 89 [19:17]
Sonata in A major for violin and piano no. 3 op. 96 [16:44]
Sonata in E major for violin and piano no. 4 op. 113 [19:00]
Agnieszka Marucha (violin); Jakub Tchorzewski (piano)
rec. September 2021, Dom Pracy Twórczej w Radziejowicach
First recording

Not that long ago, I knew precious little about Raul Koczalski, except that he was a celebrated interpreter of his compatriot, Frédéric Chopin. But now, a year or so later, not only do I know a fair bit about his life as a prolific composer, but have also listened through, or at least sampled the nine or so CDs devoted exclusively to his output. I am relieved to say that this required no extensive musicological research or travel on my part, but merely thumbing through the highly-enterprising catalogue of the Acte Préalable label, and the unswerving dedication and insight of the person behind it, Jan Jarnicki.

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 was subsequently imprisoned in the country again during WW2, until he was able to return to Poznań, in his native Poland, in 1945. Here he accepted a post as professor at the city’s State Higher School of Music, which later 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.

This new CD release – ‘Chamber Works 4’ – features the last three of his four sonatas for piano and violin, No 2 in E minor, No 3 in F sharp minor, and No 4 in E major respectively. The first sonata appeared as part of ‘Chamber Works 1’, which was reviewed on MWI in June 2017. According to the well-documented CD booklet, Sonatas 2 and 3 stem from the WW1 era, and particularly precarious times for Koczalski, given the financial, and accommodation problems he was facing. Furthermore, due to a shortage of paper, he would compose, only when he had the whole piece mapped out in his head, often doing so with no access to instruments.

Whereas Violin Sonata No 1 had been in four movements, the second adheres to tripartite form, which was actually more the norm at the time. I did listen to First Sonata, on the earlier CD, and my immediate thoughts were that both instruments in the Second appeared more involved from the outset, and that the musical argument was more of an equal partnership. From the start of the opening Moderato, the piano part, in particular, shows signs of greater virtuosity, but this, of course, comes as little surprise, given that the composer was also an outstanding virtuoso pianist in his own right. While there might be a little harmonic ambiguity at the beginning, once Koczalski gets into his stride, the melodic outpourings come thick and fast throughout the movement.

The second movement – Andante – initially favours a style of writing which was noticeable at the start of the first sonata, where the violin sings its melody over a simple, pulsating chordal backing from the piano. However, here the composer elaborates considerably on the interaction between his two instruments, until the calm of the opening returns to conclude the shortest movement as such on the CD, though it would certainly be more precise to describe it as ‘short but sweet’.

For his Finale, Koczalski returns to the age-old theme and variations format, but with a decided new twist to it. Normally, you would expect the theme to be shared between violin and piano from the very outset. But in Koczalski’s case, only the piano is involved. I know of two sets of variations by John Dowland, and Vincent D’Indy respectively, which begin with their final variation, and work backwards to end with the theme, but I am unaware of any other example of the composer’s unique modus operandi here. Furthermore, while the home key of F sharp minor had dominated the first two movements, the composer shifts straightaway to the tonic major (F sharp) for the Finale.
Following the piano’s solo announcement of the Andante theme, Koczalski continues with a set of five short variations. The already-perfectly-formed theme might easily pass for a short piano miniature, and features a fleeting, but particularly telling moment of chromatic harmony, that will figure again as the variations run their course. The first variation – marked Lento – simply gives the violin an opportunity to comment on, embellish, and somewhat enhance the theme expressively, while essentially leaving it largely untouched. The second variation (Maestoso) is again simply conceived, with the composer now swapping major for minor, and imbuing the music with greater poignancy and dignity, as somewhat befits the ‘majestic’ nature of the tempo indication.

After the pathos of the previous variation, Koczalski lifts the spirits considerably with the following one, which returns to the major key, and is cast as a gently-undulating and graceful Siciliano, marked Andante grazioso. The penultimate variation (Moderato) returns to the home minor key, where the violin weaves ever-more rhapsodic figurations over the simple chordal outline from the piano. The final variation (Lento sostenuto) is back in the tonic major key and features a passionate outpouring in the higher register from the violin, over a soft, rippling triplet accompaniment from the piano, as the sonata ends in hushed and contemplative mood.

The booklet informs us that the opening Moderato of Sonata No 3 is ‘much more developed, and complicated in terms of technique’ than the previous Sonata as a whole. The texture is definitely denser than before, and the thematic material more complex. The sleeve-note goes on to suggest that ‘the solo instrument definitely moves to the foreground’, this is something I feel slightly at odds with. After all, by this time in its long history, the violin sonata, as a musical entity, has developed into a true partnership, with both instruments treated as equal protagonists in the musical argument. In fact I would actually say there is far more interplay here, than before, where the violin did seem to assume ‘prima donna’ status, to a degree. Koczalski’s harmonic palette has intensified, and his fondness for chromatic chords seems more acute. There seemed more memorable themes in the previous sonata’s first movement, but that is largely due to the greater abundance of individual motifs in the present Moderato, as well as the technically more-demanding writing.

The middle movement (Adagio) opens with a wistful, short violin introduction that presents a motif to be developed later. The piano enters soon after, where its role is mainly to support the continuing violin melody, marked con grande sentimento, according to the booklet, and which is very much in evidence from the violinist’s warmly rich tone. The composer seems initially to have eschewed his regular mix of diatonic and chromatic harmonies, in favour of a simpler, modal style, stylistically better-suited to the violin’s outpourings at this juncture. As the movement unfolds, the tonal palette audibly changes somewhat, with the introduction of some finely-judged chromatic chords, which add extra piquancy and edge to the harmony.

The finale – appropriately labelled Agitato – immediately sets the scene, with the piano’s broken-octave triplets somewhat reminiscent of the opening of Schubert’s Erlkönig, in a powerful movement that is definitely bolder in conception than much of which has gone before, so far. Albeit starting out momentarily in the tonic-minor key, there is still a real swagger to the music, not only in the violin part, with its more frequent use of double-stoppings, but in the writing overall, which sees both instruments now enjoying equal status. With just about thirty-five seconds to run, the pace intensifies, and everything looks set for a dramatic, gallop to the finish. But Koczalski, as is his wont, denies us, virtually at the eleventh hour, and brings back the opening piano octaves, with their darker minor-key tonality.

The composer began work on the Fourth Sonata in 1936, although it wasn’t performed until five years later, at one of the composer’s ‘Hauskonzerte’, regularly organized in Koczalski’s home. From the start of the opening Moderato, the composer’s harmonic palette, and feeling for less-ordinary chord juxtapositions are both more extensive than before, in fact this might well be indicative of Koczalski’s more ‘mature’ style. There is also a far greater sense of thematic interplay between the instruments, even if, ultimately, the violin still appears to dominate the texture. The second movement – a terse Allegretto in the tonic minor key – opens with a brief rhapsodic outpouring from the violin, preceded by a single bare octave chord from the piano. The violin motif immediately forms the thematic basis for a three-in-a-bar, violin-led, Scherzo-like movement. This leads to a calmer ‘Trio’ section, in the major, and full of lyrical expression, though the music of the opening soon reappears, and leads to a tidy, and business-like close.

The ensuing Adagio, in the relative minor (C sharp minor), is yet another gem of a movement, effectively a poignant, heart-felt cantilena sung by the violin, with a tellingly-supportive accompaniment from the piano. There is a real reliance on modal harmony here, which the frequent use at times of parallel fourths considerably enhances, though this equally suits the more forward-looking harmonic style of the opening. The finale, Allegro con spirito, truly exudes ‘spirit’, both in the composer’s writing, and from the exciting performance here, where the galloping triplets, which the two instruments share, give the music a real sense of panache, and, even more importantly, considering it’s the finale to the composer’s last violin sonate, for once a really strong, heart-on-sleeve ending.

If you take a look at the extensive Acte Préalable (AP) catalogue, you will soon see that the label draws from a pool of the leading performers, by far the vast majority of them from Poland. Some may tend to do a better job in technically-challenging repertoire, while others will excel where the emphasis is on more-expressive playing. In this respect, Koczalski benefits tremendously on this new CD, from such a fortuitous choice of violinist as Agnieszka Marucha. I have heard her on a number of other works in the AP catalogue, and have to say that, for me, she is arguably the jewel in their crown of preferred violinists. Hers is a gloriously rich tone and expressive vibrato, which always teases out every drop of impassioned lyricism in the writing, while still ensuring that, even at its sweetest moment, this never becomes mawkish, and seemingly more at home in the realms of salon music – not that I wish to denigrate that equally-relevant musical genre.

While Agnieszka Marucha kept me enthralled virtually throughout all three sonatas, it would be churlish not to acknowledge the equally-impressive support she received from pianist, Jakub Tchorzewski. For, even if the violin still emerged the ultimate prima donna, the piano was always there to support, whether taking the initiative, or, more usually, providing a highly-empathetic background. The high-quality recording captures every aspect of the performance with great fidelity, especially the management of instrumental balance, all of which were considerably enhanced by the venue’s fine acoustics.

Just out of interest, I checked out Koczalski’s discography in the profuse Naxos catalogue, and did find two CDs. But these featured him only as an eminent pianist in his own right; there wasn’t a single track of his own music available.

The Violin Sonata is certainly one of the most fecund of musical genres, and the three examples on this new CD not only display the true breadth of the composer’s abilities, but specifically his keen knowledge of instrumentation and, most of all, his vivid imagination, individual musical voice, and the welcome ability to come up with a ‘good tune’, as required.
When summing up my previous review of music by Raul Koczalski – his Three Piano Trios – I concluded that, as an unashamed romantic myself, they were always going to be ‘my kind of music’. The three Violin Sonatas heard on this present CD provide an even more compelling case, and I really can’t extol his praises more enthusiastically.

At least, thanks to Acte Préalable’s absolute dedication to, and unfailing belief in Koczalski the composer, there is always the hope that while his name will never usurp those of his fellow-countrymen like Chopin, Paderewski, Moszkowski, or the brothers Wieniawski, he might eventually gain the recognition he truly deserves, not just globally, but more importantly in his homeland, too.

Philip R Buttall

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