Stinky proclaims himself Chopin’s heir!

One of the wondrous mythical beings in childhood was the infrequently appearing Stinky of vintage Abbott & Costello films. In no way was he dated: his dress and manner were as contemporary and vivid as the avatars we bombinated with in school hallways.


Just as Stinky is obsessed and possessive of his cards, Raoul von Koczalski, a look-alike, acted this way with Chopin.

From the very first sight of him, another personality came to mind at once: King Farouk of Egypt, an indolent, corrupt, but colorful defrocked monarch.

Child prodigies rarely had time for any formal education, and Koczalski, pardon me, von Koczalski was pushed into a career at a tender age. One period found him having lessons with Karol Mikuli, Chopin’s assistant.

It must have been remarkable to have had access to such a contact, Chopin’s star pupil and the first to edit his mentor’s notes with descriptions of how the composer himself used strategic fingerings and subtle pedaling to project his avant-garde creations. But Milkuli was quite old when Koczalski came to him.

Koczalski made a lifelong fetish of his contact with Mikuli, including secrets allegedly gleaned from him on how Chopin embellished his music, causing scholars to wonder and marvel over the recordings Koczalski left behind, several hours of Chopin.

One recently discovered program came from 1948, the year of the pianist’s death. He sits at Chopin’s own piano (an instrument he played when living in Poland, tuned to a lower pitch) and offers us a mazurka:

Chopin mazurka (op. 7, no.1) by Koczalski

Wait  a moment!! In one passage, Chopin composed a hemiola: a rhythmic creature that exhibits a boisterous math game: instead of the rocking one-two-three, one-two-three (a total of six beats), the clever composer made it into left hand groupings of one-two-one-two-one-two (three times two) against the feeling of three in the right hand. Chopin doesn’t often resort to this game. As Koczalski self-proclaimed himself to be Mikuli’s heir and Chopin’s musical grandson, enjoy the way he counts this rhythm:

Raoul’s beat

Let’s step aside for a moment and check some dates. Koczalski was born in 1884, Mikuli died in 1897, so our prize-winner was thirteen when his mentor left the planet.

Another boy, some two years older, never met Mikuli and never claimed to be Chopin’s one and only heir, but many listeners found Ignaz Friedman to have understood Chopin better than anyone in their time.

Friedman in Hawaii 1927, soon after recording the Polonaise.
Friedman in Hawaii 1927, soon after recording the Polonaise.

Here is Friedman playing Chopin’s rhythmic jest as written :

Ignaz rhythm

Once when I was about to lecture on Friedman at a symposium, the presenter ahead happened to select Koczalski as a significant historic link to Chopin, singling out Friedman as a musician whose Chopin should be reviled. Readings from Koczalski’s effusive paeans to his master and how the tradition flowed in his veins were supplemented by a recording of Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat, offered as an exemplary correction to Friedman’s excesses (which weren’t heard during her spot). Here is one telling moment in the dance. Usually a martial rhythm dominates but in one unique episode, Chopin sets aside its rhythms and lazes into a rhapsodic improv:


There immediately follows a cloying melodic shape. Koczalski seems put off by its or his tedium of having something repeat, in expectation of its Big Bang theme to return on its heels:

Polonaise rvk 2

I sat stunned, as if Friedman had come to me in a dream days earlier, guiding me to isolate the exact same example and illustrate how overblown egotistic automatons like Koczalski overlooked Chopin’s subtleties written into the music, like Stinky coveting his cards on stage. I included Friedman’s disc to show the music coming to life when an interpreter provides a sonic close-up (note the left hand’s prominent bass tones and then the attention to chords,) sweeping into a momentous arrival of the main theme:

Friedman polonaise

If I haven’t caused every reader to experience discomfort by listening to Koczalski, then I sincerely hope this example will bring about a full-bodied revulsion. As Stinky hoarded his cards, Koczalski made public some hidden ornaments that Chopin dusted into a Nocturne. This was permitted as the music derived from Italian bel canto singing and he was obsessed with Bellini’s operas and their embellished arias. Moriz Rosenthal, born well before Koczalski in 1862, also studied with Mikuli and was mature when the master died.

He once stated that Mikuli understood Chopin in the way a talent understands a genius: Mikuli was practical in teaching how to create a singing legato line, a genuine link to the composer’s touch. Rosenthal provides an example:


Now it’s Koczalski’s turn:

9.2. Koczalski

Chopin wrote a friend of hearing the opera that night with vocalists who seemed to be digesting their dinner on stage. Koczalski’s kitschy inclusions, a la Liberace, add extra padding to phrases that bloat its rhythm, reminding one of an Italian adage:

To be accepted, lies and meatballs have to be large.

The aftershock of this alleged authentic and unchallenged playing leads to a photo of his doppelgänger, King Farouk, doing his best to stay awake during a serenade, similar to Koczalski’s struggle with what he perceived and projected as boredom in Chopin.

My sincerest apologies to the dethroned king:

his cousin Prince Hassan Aziz Hassan sat by Ignace Tiegerman’s bedside as he lay dying in Cairo and helped save his legacy, keeping Chopin’s spirit alive more than anyone else had, and on the Nile.

Tiegerman’s Chopin

Hassan’s Cairo


10 Responses to “Stinky proclaims himself Chopin’s heir!”

  1. For the most part, I have always agreed since first hearing Koczalski.
    The Rosenthal clip was VERY convincing.
    But what is Tiegerman’s Chopin ?
    I don’t greg the connection.
    But down to that point, I was with you all the way.

  2. Tiegerman’s Chopin is at a high level with many stylistic and interpretive details closely resembling descriptions of the composer’s own playing. I’ll illustrate a few in upcoming postings. Thanks for your listening!

  3. Allan, as always, you are right on the mark. Musicians have the almost perilous struggle, not unlike a tightrope walker, of balancing their ego in service of the music. The comparison between Koczalski and Friedman and Rosenthal reveals a few interesting differences. In the E-flat nocture, we find Koczalski filling the music with ‘ornamentation’ designed to ‘engage’ the ear and show off; his dynamic range is drastically reduced compared to the details found in Rosenthal’s playing which is simpler and more tasteful. This is even in greater evidence in the Friedman comparison in the A-flat Polonaise where Friedman brings out such incredible detail while Koczalski sounds almost bored waiting to get back to bombast. Egos come in many forms and some serve the music and others force the music to serve their Ego!

  4. James Irsay says:


    There is much to comment on here, but I’ll focus on one aspect:
    Koczalski is, to me, an inconsistent player. His greatest mistake was to climb on top of the eagle and scotch tape himself to its wings. On the plus side, he has a wonderful touch, and his fioritura playing is exceptional. In fact, he approaches fioritura in that melodic way we once discussed. At his best, he is great. His lapses are often rhythmic, with frequent breakage of continuity, as you pointed out.

    He makes himself a target through his attempts at “composing”, in the name of Chopin, of course. In fact, Koczalski’s extra fioritura in your opus 9 Nocturne example is built on a somewhat less complex embellishment that Chopin penciled into Jane Stirling’s copy. Unfortunately, K added even more notes, probably figuring Chopin’s addition was a license to go crazy in that spot. He does the same to Chopin’s other penciled variants in the same piece. Here we can say (to paraphrase a famous quote re: Field and Chopin) that “where Chopin smiles, Koczalski grimaces.”

    Koczalski has recorded other utterly uncharacteristic variants in other works. He gives himself away by, among other things, adding chromaticism, as he does here in the concluding gesture of your Nocturne segment, an addition to the Jane Stirling variant. Chopin never would have played this chromatic passing tone, and it sticks out like Lon Chaney’s double-thumb in “The Unknown”. K added an even more outrageous scale-type descending run in another Chopin work (I have forgotten which) and shows again that he had a serious disconnect with Chopin’s melodic sense. But, again, he could play marvelously at times – poetic, dramatic, with great equipment. Few matters in art can be reduced to black-and-white.

  5. James Irsay says:


    Btw, in the mazurka (recorded in the last year of Koczalski’s life) he seems to begin this, the B section, with a memory slip in the left hand by beginning the section (the first 2 measures) with the hemiola figuration, which should be only in mm 5-7 of the section. He then changes the LH to a pattern not written by Chopin anywhere in the mazurka . This undoubtedly threw him off, and we cannot take this recording as his final statement. Would he have ignored Chopin’s “stretto” indication in the second phrase if he’d gotten the LH correctly? As John McCormack sang: “Whoooo knooooows…. ?” Koczalski’s best quality is a rich, liquid touch. But he is open to criticism on other points for sure.

    • It couldn’t have been a bad day: he was Polish in some or many ways and if he didn’t instinctively grasp these rhythms, let alone observe them in the music, shame on him for posing as a professional musician. There’s a recording in with a similar misreading of Bartók: not ‘Out of Doors’ mind you, but a work from ‘For Children’. He seems to ogle each piece like a boy staring into a candy store, overlooking price tags as he drools. He had a lovely sound and so did Liberace, who at least didn’t pretend to be an Artur Schnabel and plied his craft in perfect harmony with his persona.

      • James Irsay says:


        Quite possibly so. It seems almost beyond belief that ANY pianist, let alone a “Mikuli student”, and a Polish one at that, would not grasp such an explicit indication, and one that is so naturally connected to the music. But there we have it. Still, it would be interesting to hear another of his performances of that mazurka.

  6. James Irsay says:


    Sorry to take up so much space! I just remembered the ultimate trivialization of a Chopin passage by Koczalski. It occurs in the final great fioritura passage of the D flat Nocturne from op. 27. What should have been a descending D flat dominant seventh arpeggio, K changes to a scale! Does the fact that he messes up the preceding notes (most pianists dread this part) have anything to do with it? After all, the scale is a simplification. You can hear it here, at around 3:06 (a bit earlier for the entire passage):

  7. James Irsay says:


    Even if the descending scale turns out to be via Mikuli or O’Meara-Dubois (it’s not in Stirling), it was perhaps indeed conceived as a simplification, something Chopin happily did for his students. In any case, it is a poor substitute for the graceful, high-class arpeggio, which perfectly answers the scalar ascent preceding it, like running up to a high promontory and swan-diving off the ledge, curlicuing through the air. Not that Chopin was averse to answering a scalar ascent with a scalar descent, as the big up-and-down run in the B Major Nocturne op. 62 no. 1. But the airy delicacy of the dominant seventh arpeggio is not called for in that fortissimo passage.

    I find much to admire in Koczalski’s transition material in the Polonaise. Again, his touch is undeniably clear and beautiful. In fact he does accentuate the bass notes, but in a different manner than Friedman. Koczalski subtly stresses them by playing them with only a short pedal, so they become portamento, where they were fully-pedaled til then. And his 3 trills are perfect. No, he does not give as much loving attention to the line as Friedman… unfortunately, the most obvious impression is that he’s reading his reviews as he plays. You’ve found him at a fleeting low point, even as he exhibits a high level of “pianism”. The rest of his Polonaise is spirited if not totally brilliant. Well, he wouldn’t be the first pianist to please, and then disappoint.

  8. Allan, I’m afraid I don’t get your point regarding the Op. 53 passage. Both pianists falsify Chopin’s notation. Koczalski anticipates the crescendo; the smorzando should continue until the octaves in b. 151. (His electrical recording, btw, continues the smorzando as written, though other changes to Chopin’s notation remain, such as diminuendo instead of crescendo in b. 135.) But Friedman treats Chopin’s text no more respectfully. He also anticipates the crescendo, though not by as much. And the very features you point to – the accented bass notes and their echo in the left-hand chords – make their effect because of changes Friedman has made to Chopin’s notation. The b. 144-147 bass notes stand out not only because they’re accented, but because Friedman has scrupulously ignored Chopin’s bass sforzandi in bars 134-143: Chopin doesn’t call for any change of approach in bar 144. (To make sure we don’t give too much attention to the bass before he wants us to hear it, Friedman even shifts it up an octave in b. 138.) And the lovely echo of the bass in b. 147-150’s inner voice is (1) not indicated by Chopin, and (2) undermines the effect of the smorzando to much the same extent as Koczalski’s crescendo. I love it, but I can’t honestly claim it’s closer to Chopin’s spirit than what Koczalski does, or than what Chopin actually wrote.

    But mostly what I don’t understand is what seems like a double standard. Koczalski changes a repeat: Horrors! Friedman changes a repeat: The music comes to life! We both prefer Friedman here, but one pianist being greater does not in any way diminish the other pianist.

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