Pianists From The Past: Raoul von Koczalski

Today’s Pianists From The Past post, which is the second in my series (you can view the first, written by pianist James Kirby, here), has been written by Japanese concert pianist and artistic director of Mousikos, Yuki Negishi (pictured at the end of this post). She highlights Polish pianist Raoul von Koczalski, a pianist who’s playing she adores, and with whom she has a personal connection.

Raoul von Koczalski in 1901, aged 17 years old.

Now mostly forgotten, but considered as one of the greatest Chopin interpreters and one of the greatest pianists in his time, Raoul von Koczalski (3 Jan 1884 – 24 Nov 1948; full name: Armand Georg Raoul von Koczalski) was born in Warsaw to a Polish noble family. He was a pianist and composer, and a typical child prodigy. He started lessons with his mother, made his first public appearance in 1888 (aged 4), and was taken to play for Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894) who foresaw his talent and potential. He then went on to have lessons from, amongst others, Karl Mikuli (1821-1897) Chopin’s favourite pupil and assistant. By the age of 9, Koczalski was playing in major European cities as a virtuoso, and aged 12, he gave his 1000th concert in Leipzig. He was also given awards and recognition from the Royal Families of Spain, Turkey and Persia.

Raoul von Koczalski in 1894, aged 10 years old.

Based in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s, he toured Italy, France and Poland as a highly esteemed interpreter of Chopin. He was also one of the first big star pianists to record for Deutsche Grammophon before the outbreak of World War II. During the war, his recordings were banned and he was forced to stay in Berlin without permission to perform, due to his Polish heritage. After the war, Koczalski was rehabilitated in both Germany and Poland (he took up professorship at the State Higher School of Music in Poznan in 1945) but died soon after in 1948.

Raoul von Koczalski photographed in 1925, aged 41 years old.

The complete works of Chopin and the complete Beethoven Sonatas formed the core of Koczalski’s very extensive repertoire (which consisted of mainly classical and romantic composers).  He had a beautiful tone, liquid technique, clarity and transparency, and interpretations that did not take too many liberties unlike some of his contemporaries, but rather he remained true to the score. And yet, his interpretations feel so spontaneous and improvisatory. This unique and magical balance is what draws me to his playing. Highly regarded pianists of the present day such as Murray Perahia and the esteemed Chopin scholar John Rink also consider Koczalski to be a true heir to Chopin interpretations.

For me, there is an added personal meaning as I had the privilege and fortune to study with Jan Marisse Huizing in Amsterdam, who was the pupil of Detlef Kraus in Hamburg. Kraus was taught by Koczalski.

Here is a recording of Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat major Op. 9 No. 2, iconic of Koczalski’s playing. It includes ‘authentic variants’, apparently written in Mikuli’s score by Chopin:

His interpretations of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor Op.58 and the piano concerti are very fresh and special as well. Here’s the first movement of the Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor Op. 21, recorded in 1948, with the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester conducted by Sergiu Celibidache:

Further reading of Jan Marisse Huizing’s Frederic Chopin: The Etudes. History. Performance Practice. Interpretation (published by Schott Music Ltd.) contains many “secrets” (such as variants) passed down from Koczalski, through Mikuli, thus from Chopin himself.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.


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