Symphony No.6, Op.63 (Sinfonia Breve)
Symphony No.7, Op.70
Concerto for Orchestra, Op.101
Aalborg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Moshe Atzmon
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: February 2001
CD No: dacapo 8.224135
Duration: 74 mins 17 secs
I would have been able to encapsulate Herman D Koppel in two words: Danish pianist. I would probably have added that he was a friend of fellow-Dane Carl Nielsen and that he recorded Nielsen’s piano music (having previously played it for the composer). I wouldn’t though have known that Herman D(avid) Koppel (1908-1998) was the ‘patriarch of a music dynasty that has become a Danish counterpart of the Bach family’. Nor did I know that he was such a prolific composer. This first volume of his orchestral music is very welcome – if the rest is as good as this then there’s a lot of listening pleasure in store.
If I say that Koppel’s music – certainly that on this CD – reminds of Nielsen, then I’m not suggesting Koppel is a carbon-copy of the much better-known composer; rather Nielsen is the starting-point, and in particular his Sinfonia Semplice (Sixth Symphony, his greatest in my view). There’s a similarity in the way Koppel orchestrates – his quixotic use of instruments – and there’s also his ability to suggest some sort of landscape, even when the music’s overriding importance is structural and motivic. Koppel’s Sixth Symphony (1957) is another of those concentrated fifteen-minute symphonies (ditto Roy Harris’s and Lennox Berkeley’s Thirds) that has a great deal to say in a short timespan. Deliberate or not, the treading cellos and basses from 0’20” remind of Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto. There are suggestions of melodies from the woodwind as violins hint at something in the distance … the music grows and explodes into energy. Koppel 6 is a taut construction that burgeons with life and expression (sometimes a tad of wit too), which in its clarity of orchestration, linear design and continual development makes for impressive listening.
The language of Sinfonia Breve is traditional yet personal – one senses Koppel inventing and working-out his material without looking over his shoulder for a precedent or a guide. His Seventh (1961) is double the length of its predecessor and in three movements: an Andante leads to a scherzo, which is followed by an Allegro con brio. Koppel is more exploratory with his material at the opening – the music searches for direction. Yet there is an underlying pulse that keeps the fanfare-like ideas in their own orbit (some of the material reminded me of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony – but without the terror). There is a though a troubled expression at the root of Koppel’s invention, which finds its outlet in a garbed waltz that is swallowed up in a burdened – and textually-busy – climax throughout which Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony side drum is omnipresent. The clarity of Koppel’s harmonic thinking and his care for balancing contrapuntal lines is evinced in the last few minutes of the first movement – an insular, resigned world. The scherzo is puckish and mysterious (and brilliantly imagined in the orchestra). The last movement, the longest, again begins as an exploration – but the listener knows that the music will develop. Again, this anticipated sense of purpose (with reflective interludes) has an underlying foreboding as Koppel builds towards a denouement (this is terrifically dramatic symphony) – but the (compellingly expressive) upward-step resolution that arrives (from 10’46”) after a ‘fractured’ brass chorale suggests that we have been journeying to a cul-de-sac. However, a gentle radiance at the close suggests spiritual balm remains tangible, albeit across the horizon.
The Seventh was Koppel’s last symphony, one ending with a question it seems to me. His 25-minute Concerto for Orchestra (1978) returns to the quixotic and playful elements of the Sinfonia Breve – one shares the composer’s delight with his conjuring orchestral colours and highlighting and combining various instruments. To the standard four orchestral groups, Koppel ‘invents’ a fifth consisting of piano, celeste and harp (as in Tippett’s Second Symphony). Long, ecstatic string lines and darting woodwind figuration inform Koppel’s first movement. The second is ‘tougher’, brass and timps to the fore, the expression being more angular; the third takes on a Messiaenic ambience with a L’Ascension-like meditation in the strings. The finale is propulsive, witty and gently lyrical. As one of his final substantial pieces, I would suggest that Concerto for Orchestra is summatory in terms of Koppel’s musical language.
No claims are made for this being a CD of first recordings … and I don’t know! What I do know – apart from appreciating the dedicated performances under the very experienced Atzmon and the fine sound – is that these pieces of Koppel’s are mightily impressive. In recommending this issue, I urge anyone sympathetic to Carl Nielsen and Robert Simpson, and those rewarded by BIS’s survey of Vagn Holmboe’s symphonies (or dacapo’s of Holmboe’s Quartets), to investigate Koppel Volume One as a matter of urgency. I hope Vol.2 isn’t far away