Symphony No.1, Op.5
Symphony No.2, Op.37
Aalborg Symphony Orchestra
Recorded in June and October 2001 at Symfonien, Aalborg, Denmark in association with the Danish Broadcasting Corporation
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: April 2003
CD No: DACAPO 8.224205
My enthusiastic welcome to Volume 1 – see review link, which includes some Koppel biography – ensured this second leg an immediate audition. In truth, neither symphony here has the stature of those on the first release.
However, the composer had doubts too and withdrew both. My feeling is that these particular works might have been left as the final issue (an appendix) of this very welcome Koppel survey. That said, both symphonies have their moments, more than that in fact. What’s lacking sometimes is a strong sense of structure. The first movement of No.1 (1930), a mix of Nielsen and Hindemith, has power and energy; Koppel is announcing himself pugnaciously and with imagination for textures and sonority, yet there’s a lack of gel. The slow movement is a tense ’Adagio’, tragic in tone, elegiac lines for strings carry great import, and scherzo-like material lifts some of the burden, even if the rhythms are a little ’sticky’. The Finale tries to march proud, but it’s a noisy and angular parade. One can understand Koppel regarding his First Symphony as “apprentice” – one must applaud him though for recognising its faults and for setting high critical standards.
The 40-minute Second’s withdrawal is less easy to appreciate. Koppel’s clarity of thought (and orchestration) is altogether more assured in this ’war symphony’ from 1943, Denmark having been occupied for three years. The opening refrain sounds English – as does quite a lot of Scandinavian music, Vagn Holmboe and Robert Simpson share common territory – with a Vaughan Williams sense of optimism in times of despair, although the lucidity of the writing is more akin to Lennox Berkeley. Propulsion and expressive half-lights intermingle as the first movement strives then sinks into reverie, memorable ideas and contrapuntal skills sustaining the movement’s direction into which a dancing fugue naturally weaves itself; innate use of solo wind and brass emphasises Koppel’s soliloquy. The reflective coda is curiously similar to its counterpart in Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, which pre-dates Koppel’s work by a year.
If the first movement is an impressive achievement, then the ensuing ’Andante’ meanders somewhat, speech patterns against more chattering motion lead to a strenuous climax. High-lying strings offer sought-after radiance and a more celestial countenance. Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony, and thus The Pilgrim’s Progress, comes to mind.
The long Finale emerges from shadows, from quiet contemplation of a better world; such thoughts brusquely thrust aside by irregular rhythms and ’bare’ orchestration, and a predatory use of motive. Clashes can easily be heard as war-related, so too disquieting and visionary interludes; there is no resolution, and strikingly so.
I think Koppel was being hard on himself by striking this work from his catalogue, certainly in this fine performance, another triumph for Atzmon and his orchestra (don’t miss their Doráti disc on BIS). Koppel Volume 3 is awaited; and do snap up Volume 1.