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CLASSICAL  March 2008

CLASSICAL March 2008

Subject:

Koppel Concerti

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 11 Mar 2008 15:52:22 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (138 lines)

Herman Koppel
Orchestral Music, vol. 1

*  Concerto for Flute, op. 87a
*  Concerto for Cello, op. 56
*  Concerto for Piano No. 2

Rune Most, flute
Michaela Fukacova, cello
Ulrich Staerk, piano
Odense Symphony Orchestra/Paul Mann
DaCapo 8.226032  Total time: 78:17

Summary for the Busy Executive: Danish Modern.

Herman Koppel, born in Poland, emigrated with his family to Denmark. 
A virtuoso pianist, he studied, briefly, composition with Carl Nielsen.
During the war, the Jewish Koppel fled to neutral (though Nazi-leaning)
Sweden and, afterwards, returned to Denmark.  He founded a Danish musical
dynasty.  His sons and grandsons play major roles in that country's
musical life.

As you might expect, Koppel's music shows the influence of Nielsen but
is not confined to it.  As a pianist, he was drawn to the "hard" wing
of modern music and had in his very large repertoire concerti by Bartok
and Schoenberg.  Some of those composers found their way into his own
music as well.  Furthermore, his music evolved.  One of those composers
who had little interest in repeating himself, his music moves from a
uncompromising Modernism (for the time) to a more relaxed, slightly
neo-Romantic note, to a nod toward postwar techniques.  He didn't write
a lot, but he did try to write to last.  The program on this CD gives
you a good overall view of his output.

Inevitably, one compares Koppel to Vagn Holmboe as the major modern
Danish composer after Nielsen.  If I give the palm to Holmboe, it doesn't
turn Koppel to dreck.  But Holmboe has such a large output of such high
quality, he demands that kind of centrality, as Vaughan Williams demands
the central position of interwar British music over Holst, Walton, Bax,
Britten (who doesn't come into his own until after the war), and a host
of other wonderful writers.

The Second Piano Concerto of 1937 shows a kind of bifurcation.  The
orchestral opening is almost pure Nielsen, while the piano writing owes
a lot to Bartok's First Piano Concerto from about a decade earlier.  One
expects this kind of music from a young man (Koppel was born in 1908),
aggressive and shoving, eager to show the world what he can do.  However,
after its 1938 premiere, Koppel took a dislike to it and banned further
performances.  It's hard to understand why.  The work pulses with vitality
and even a maturity of outlook.  Decades later, he relented and took
part in a performance for two pianos, with his grandson Nikolaj as the
soloist and himself as the orchestra.

The first movement discusses two ideas -- one which thrusts up a minor
third and then worries the notes in between, and another in which fourths
are prominent and which falls.  The first theme gets reshaped quite a
bit.  Indeed, it rarely returns in quite the same form as its previous
incarnations.  The music moves relentlessly all the way up to the cadenza
-- unusually, an accompanied cadenza, a device at least as old as Elgar's
violin concerto.  At this point, the music gradually loses tension and
rage until it reduces to a mutter.  The slow second movement seems to
me the most eloquent and the most individual.  It begins with a folk-like
melody, a dialogue between the cellos and violas and the winds.  The
beginning paragraph, a substantial three minutes, gives way to the solo
piano, who enters with a completely different idea, as if trying to
change the topic of conversation ("O Freunde, nicht diese Toene"), but
the orchestra holds on to its thread, while the piano keeps insisting.
Eventually, the orchestra takes up the piano's idea, but the piano
continues with the orchestra's original matter.  Incidentally, this
happens after the orchestra works itself to such a climax (an increase
mainly of tension, rather than of volume), that the argument becomes
"untethered." This happens several times in the movement, and always the
music turns to something surprising.  A little more than halfway through,
after such a farrago, a "barbaric" scherzo breaks out.  It eventually
becomes clear that it's the first idea rhythmically transformed.  After
another untethering, it veers back to the opening idea in something like
its original dress.  In the third movement, Stravinsky gets introduced
by way of some very Sacre-like ostinatos, syncopations, and accents.
Here and there, one also catches echoes, without slavish imitation, of
Stravinsky's piano concerto and Capriccio, two more works in Koppel's
repertoire.  The movement also surprises you with two cadenzas.  As the
liner notes point out, it's as if the work can't end until it finds
peace.  The concerto works up to a grand, glittering finish, a majestic
restatement of the finale's opening idea.

For me, the cello concerto of 1951 stands as the most poised statement
on the CD.  It recalls Nielsen's splendid sanity and balance without
aping Nielsen's manner.  What I take to be the melos of Danish folk song
(at least, what I know of it from Aksel Schiotz recordings) permeates
the work.  Unlike the second piano concerto, the cello concerto shows
great control without needing to wind itself up so tight.  It takes big
breaths.  The first movement, a relatively straightforward sonata movement,
is tinged with the sound of high, sweet bells.  This is followed by
another eloquent slow movement which works with two ideas.  The first,
prominent with the minor third both up and down, essentially extends
itself by putting forth tendrils and elaborations.  The second, more
fixed, has the same general shape as Mozart's "Jupiter" motif.  The
movement is, on the whole, chamber-like, but warm rather than austere.
The finale, a rondo, falls into three large pieces, A-B-A, plus a brief
coda.  The first section moves in vigorous triple time, with fugato
episodes.  The rondo theme emphasizes an upward minor third, which, come
to think of it, has been prominent throughout the concerto.  The large
middle part is calmer and features yet another cadenza, which eventually
sighs gracefully and makes way for the quick coda, winds up and takes
off into the aether.

In contrast, the 1971 flute concerto strikes me as a much pricklier
affair.  It runs much shorter than the other two.  It also goes counter
to type.  If most flute concerti take on the character of a divertissement,
the grim atmosphere Koppel summons up recalls Schoenberg's piano concerto.
Furthermore, its extremely close working demands a listener's concentration.
The first movement, for example, grows out of the opening measures.  My
favorite part of the movement comes toward the end, during a duet between
the solo flute and clarinet, when the barlines disappear and the two
players seem simply to riff.  The second and third movements are continuous,
with the overall rhetorical strategy that of a recitative and dance.
Without the score in front of me, I can't tell you for sure, but the
concerto has the economy and tautness of serial music.  The drama of the
final two movements runs as follows: in the slow movement, the flute and
the ensemble play "out of synch," as if they try, and fail, to get
together.  They mesh at the beginning of the third movement in a kind
of saunter which becomes more and more livelier as the music progresses,
until soloist and orchestra fly apart, exhausted, pulling together again
only at the very end.  I should say that despite the generally gray
atmosphere, Koppel also seems to indulge a sense of playful fun with
these scenarios.

The performances are good enough, but the cello concerto, at least,
deserves something considerably better.  Still, Mann and his forces give
you a good idea of the stature of these works, enough to allow you to
wish for the first-rate.

Steve Schwartz

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