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CD Review

Hermann Koppel


  • Symphony #3, Op. 39 (1944-45)
  • Symphony #4, Op. 42 (1946)
Aalborg Symphony Orchestra/Moshe Atzmon
Marco Polo Dacapo 8.226016 64:21
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Gripping.

Hermann David Koppel (1908-1998), born to Polish-Jewish parents who had emigrated to Denmark, led a full musical life as pianist, conductor, teacher, and composer. He was also father to rock musician and film composer Thomas Koppel. Like his compatriot Holmboe, his compositions have just begun to make their way outside his country, although the Danes themselves didn't play them all that much. Damned if I know why. The symphonies here show great emotional and architectural strength.

I must say, however, that Koppel doesn't have an easily-identifiable voice, one that allows you to name the composer after a few bars, as you can with Copland or Vaughan Williams. Indeed, several voices run through Koppel's work: Nielsen (understandably, particularly in the approach to counterpoint), Bartók, and little bits of Hindemith and Stravinsky. Yet he doesn't produce pastiche. You don't get a little Nielsen or little Bartók. His idiom serves what he expresses, and his expression apparently comes from his own experience, rather than second-hand. In this, you can compare him to a composer like William Alwyn in England.

The Third Symphony, written from the composer's exile in neutral Sweden during the Nazi occupation of Denmark, shows a terrific advance over the first two. Koppel's control over his materials becomes much firmer, much more focused, although I can't call the symphony a complete success. Koppel wrote it in one long movement, subdivided into three major sections plus coda, based on mainly three ideas, all heard at the beginning: an accompanying figure, which magically and unobtrusively switches back and forth between two and three pulses to the bar; a "corkscrew" figure (a type of line that often indicates anxiety) first sounding in the solo clarinet; a more expansive, triplet-laden idea from the English horn, often serving rhetorically to relax the stress. Just about everything in the symphony derives from these three ideas, and one experiences transformation. Ideally, a symphony of transformation should take you on a non-stop ride, as, say, Simpson's works do. Occasionally, Koppel's joins show, in the sense that the symphony seems to stop and restart or telegraph a new section. The liner notes tell me that Koppel intended the symphony as a meditation on the Nazi occupation, but this is no saber-rattling, fist-shaking diatribe, à la the Shostakovich Seventh. It seems to concern itself more with victims, viewed from a distance. One can find astonishing passages throughout the work, including one of my favorites which consists of nothing more than a simple unison.

The Fourth Symphony followed relatively quickly, and Koppel now demonstrates complete mastery over his materials. He handles them with great expressive freedom and achieves a symphony of true transformation. The first movement uses three basic ideas: a rhythmic ostinato, somewhat like Holst's "Mars" in The Planets, another twisting chromatic idea, marked by an initial descending semitone, first appearing in the solo clarinet; a diatonic, hymn-like theme, similar to parts of Nielsen's Third and Helios Overture, apparently some kind of Danish Pastoralism. The first two ideas increase tension, particularly the ostinato, while the third releases tension. The movement pits these ideas against one another, with the first two dominating the third. Again, the number of changes Koppel puts these ideas through and the distance he's able to take them show a master at work. Furthermore, a drama begins to unfold. The hymn appears twice in the symphony, only to be beaten back, as the ostinato whips the music to a frenzy. At the hymn's third occurrence, something unusual begins to happen. The ostinato, the driving force so far, drops out, and we hear the first idea divorced from it. It's a revelation. It turns out that the first idea, parted from the ostinato, is less diabolical than it seemed. Koppel moves it through a setting very much like the hymn. It's as if the hymn and the ostinato have fought for the soul of the first theme, and the hymn, despite the power of the ostinato, wins out. The ostinato returns all by itself, considerably weakened, and peters out to a single bass note.

The second movement, a straightforward scherzo, is mini but mighty. The liner notes claim an influence from Bartók, but it eludes me. Indeed, this strikes me as some of Koppel's most individual music, as far as both the "black-and-white" notes and the orchestration are concerned. It's music of an heroic, martial character, with a fierce, stamping energy.

The finale seems to cast a retrospective eye across the entire symphony. It opens with a recitative, walking through a gallery of themes that seem descended from previous movements: a dotted-rhythm from the opening movement ostinato accompanying a scion of that same movement's chromatic theme. This leads to a percolating march, a further distortion of the chromatic theme. What seems like a new, triplet-y theme comes toward the end, but Koppel has simply varied yet again his first theme. After a climax, a quiet section follows, where we get a new theme, although one very closely related to the main one so far. The section operates at a low dynamic, but with great neoclassic rhythmic intensity. The dotted ostinato beats below the surface. Another march ensues on yet another new, but related theme. This is a movement of similar thematic shapes, rather than an overflow of new themes, changed to fit the turns in the emotional argument. As the movement proceeds, the rhythmic ostinato begins to dominate, becoming more and more like the ostinato of the first movement, and the finale ends, following a long buildup, not exactly in a blaze of glory, but with an ambivalent energy. It's hard to take its exact emotional temperature. This is a grown-up ending. Koppel hasn't settled for easy triumph or transcendence.

As you have probably guessed, Koppel doesn't make things easy on performers. Atzmon and the Aalborg players give a more-than-professional reading. They put blood behind the notes, and the sound, while not spectacular, nevertheless serves the performance and can stand beside most present-day recordings. This CD gives Koppel a good chance with new listeners. I look forward to more issues of the series.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz