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Herman D. KOPPEL (1908-1998)
String Quartet No. 2 Op. 34
String Quartet No. 3 Op. 38
Piano Quintet Op. 57
Ternio Op. 53b
Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 62
Suite for Solo Cello Op. 86
Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano Op. 88
The Koppel Quartet (Quartets 2 and 3 and the Piano Quintet – with Herman D Koppel, piano), Erling Blöndal Bengtsson, cello (Suite for Solo Cello; and Cello Sonata and Ternio – with Herman D Koppel, piano) Béla Detreköj, violin René Honnens, cello and Herman D Koppel, piano
Broadcast performances and commercial LPs recorded 1956-73
DANACORD DACOCD 565-566 [2 CDs 141.03]


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I’ve been reviewing this unfolding series with considerable interest. It’s now the turn of Koppel’s chamber music – the next volume will give us his vocal works. I do subscribe to the prevailing orthodoxy regarding Koppel’s compositional lineage, which is broadly an axis of Bartók, Stravinsky and Nielsen (with an admixture of Prokofiev of whose music he was a noted exponent) but this is I think to underestimate the range of his ambition and the technical skill he employs, to say nothing of the sophistication of his thematic material. As well as being an especially fine pianist (several examples here – and his concerto performances in a previous edition gave us indisputable proof of the bigness of his technique) his brother Julius was the violist in the Koppel Quartet (led by Julius’s wife Else Marie Bruun). Koppel was thus perfectly placed to dedicate works – five of his quartets amongst other things – to his brother’s quartet and to take advantage of intimate discussions surrounding them.

If in general I am more immediately attracted to his larger scale works it’s not to imply that these are negligible works – far, far from it. He wrote widely for chamber forces and always with idiomatic understanding; nothing here is forced or crude. He wrote about ten each of trios, quartets, quintets and sextets and an equal number of sonatas for violin, cello and woodwinds. The works in this double set clearly reflect his interest in and relative absorption of other models, such as those noted above, but there is always a consonance about Koppel’s music that is a measure of his integrity. The set begins with the Second Quartet. The hints at folk influences, a Bartókian heritage, become increasingly explicit in the opening movement marked Allegro fresco, con espressione with some free wheeling thematic development and a sense of generous flux. The slow movement, the longest of the three is sweetly melancholic; the cello – as so often in Koppel – has a strongly independent line and the first violin has a part tailor-made for expressive soaring. And in this performance, recorded by Danish radio in 1962, Bruun does just that. The chugging rhythms of the finale impart a breathless animation to a movement that seems to be getting nowhere (deliberately so). The registral disparities between the string instruments are very well exploited in this knowing and well-judged movement.

The third quartet was recorded by the national radio in March 1957 in Copenhagen. It’s in Koppel’s best organically interweaved style, sometimes sinewy, sometimes tough but always explicable – the texture remains light. The initial severity of the long opening Allegro soon relaxes into a more solid and avuncular mien, Koppel cleverly simmering his material in preparation for a quietly propulsive section full of energy and drive. His muse here is one of stern affection, his means those of furtive scurry, lyrical melody emerging with effortless logic. With mutes on the string players’ rocking sweetness gives the Andante a very particular texture before mutes now removed the central section becomes animated by a songful, perhaps over insistent drive, flecked by a sinuous cello line and rhythmically propulsive energy. The finale is once more active and full of momentum – I liked the violin’s rather cocky little tune accompanied by pizzicati and humorous drone cello.

The Piano Quintet was recorded in Copenhagen commercially by EMI in 1956. A twenty-five minute, three-movement work, it is ingenious in conception and thoroughly splendid in execution. The driving, rather implacable opening leads to the emergence of themes in different keys (a Koppel trait); the tone is ruminatively brusque at times. I’d hesitate to call it Brahmsian in that sense, but it is a big-boned and strong work. The slow movement opens rather strangely – four pizzicati over the piano’s descending chordal line (it lends the opening a strangely sweet melancholy) – and the movement as a whole seems occasionally fractured and withdrawn; wounded almost. The scurrying finale is imaginatively voiced, with some almost disembodied lines for the string players, the piano announcing a distinct air of unresolved tension before all pull themselves together for a decisive finale. A big work, difficult to judge quite in respect of its emotional temperature, but deeply worth getting to know and quite splendidly performed by the dedicatees.

Since the works are given chronologically, from the Second Quartet Op. 34 to the Op. 88 Trio we can trace Koppel’s development the better. It would have helped to have dates of composition but unfortunately they are absent. Ternio – for cello and piano – is a three-movement suite, short and pithy, ranging from skittish interplay (graced with neo-classical impulse) through a curiously involving Passacaglia second movement, not unmindful of humour, to a brio laden giocoso finale. The Cello Sonata was recorded for Louisiana Records in 1959 and I liked it. There is real lyric intensity in the cello writing (the excellent Koppel associate Erling Blöndal Bengtsson). The marcato section is especially appealing. The self-styled "Bartók variations" second movement Chaconne (both Koppel and Bengtsson apparently referred to it thus) opens in interior fashion but soon blazes into life before returning to a mordant keening. The finale is full of quixotic rhythm – flighty, hinting at the Iberian and generally lightening the emotional explosiveness and breadth of the slow movement. The solo Cello suite is in five movements – the first is meditative and reflexive with hints of incipient agitation, the central Molto Tranquillo is spare and elliptical and the finale begins uneasily but ends with decisive blows.

Danacord give brief notes about the compositions in general but have line-by-line descriptions of the music, which are exhaustive, and happily have track timings in the margin so one can relate the description to what one actually hears. The brief synopsis of the Trio says that it reflects Koppel’s experience of the then avant-garde – principally Boulez and Stockhausen – and this is undeniable. But despite the abrasions and the intervallic lacunae Koppel’s lyricism remains intact. The unsettled opening ends, indeed, with a brand of stern and unyielding neo-classicist drive. Rightly the detailed notes point out the chain writing for piano and the repetitions, allusions and general density of the writing of the second movement, a fast and concentrated drama. The third movement, a Theme with Variations lasting six minutes, is the pellucid heart of the work, an intensely expressive and complexly structured movement. Sparse sometimes to the point of ellipsis it assumes greater and greater weight as the variations succeed each other. The finale opens in martial fashion but fractures almost immediately - and contrary to all musical expectation - into scurry and broken lines before ending in something approaching convincing resolution.

Danacord’s devotion to Koppel shows every sign of restoring him "in the round." With modern recordings of his symphonic works available this historical series expands the breadth of his works and performances, allowing us to hear the composer-performer at work. It does so, needless to say, with as much intelligence and attention to detail as before.

Jonathan Woolf



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