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Herman D KOPPEL (1908-1998)

Composer and Pianist

Herman D KOPPEL (1908-1998)

Piano Sonata in E Minor Op 1
Variations and Fugue for Piano Op 3
Piano Piece Op 7
Ten Piano Pieces Op 20
Suite for Piano Op 21
Sonata No 1 for piano Op 50
15 Miniatures Op 97a
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata in D Major D850
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Variations on a Theme of Paganini Op 35
Capriccio in B Minor Op 76
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Au Lac de Vallenstadt
Sonetto 123 del Petrarch
Hermann D Koppel, piano
Recorded c1957-80
DANACORD DACOCD 563-64 [2 CDs 135.36]

I reviewed the first volume in Danacord’s invaluable Koppel series, which was devoted to the concerto literature, both Koppel’s own, and those of others played by him. There was much to enjoy, not least his luxuriant Double Concerto for Violin and Viola and a clarinet concerto played with drama and drive by dedicatee Louis Cahuzac. The second volume is again a bipartite affair. The first CD is of Koppel’s own compositions and which span pretty much the whole of his creative life and the second is dedicated to the works of Schubert, Brahms and Liszt, in broadcasts made for Danish radio and recorded by them or privately – sometimes by Koppel himself. I have to say I found the documentary evidence regarding actual dates of performance and recordings difficult to disentangle and I’ve noted them in the head note accordingly as c1957-80.

Koppel’s well-known enthusiasm for Nielsen, Stravinsky and Bartók was explored in Volume One. His later encounter with Prokofiev is reflected in the Piano Sonata No 1 of 1950 – the earlier sonata of 1928 was only performed in 1980 and whilst this was his Op 1 Koppel preferred to term it the Sonata in E Minor, reserving the more official No 1 for the later work. The performance enshrined here is in fact that first performance of the 1928 work made when the composer was a stripling of 72. In the opening movement Nielsen plainly hovers over Koppel’s pen and there is some quite abrupt and stormy drama with contrastive and oppositional blocks. The adagio is informed by some questing and twisting motifs, some tied to a repetitious bass line whilst the rondo finale is a sprightly march with its fugal pretensions cleverly thwarted. The Variations received a first performance in 1980 as well – in the old style, to quote the composer, there are ten variations, none longer than a minute, and the whole work condensed into six minutes. The standout is Variation 8, a virtuosic and playful little fugue. The Ten Piano Pieces were dedicated to the composer’s eleven-year-old sister – educational works of increasing difficulty. Spiced with humour, sadness and a dash of Bartók the rhythmic complexities are well designed to test the young player’s skill. I particularly admired the Op 21 Suite. It was his first published major work, in 1935, and the composer sent a copy to Bartók. This radio recording of 1969 certainly underscores the Hungarian composer’s influence in the first movement whilst the second is full of fractious moments interspersed between some cantabile writing, smooth and fluid right hand writing and gruff left hand chords. The finale was influenced by the East – Koppel himself once said it was pure Gamelan music – and it’s intriguingly motoric where the right hand plays the pentatonic scales on the black keys. Fifty-four seconds of pure fun.

The four movement Sonata No 1 is a toughly and densely argued work, sinewy, active and incessantly ascending, as if in search of resolution. Fanfares are subsumed into the texture, subsequent expansively expressive writing curtly swept away by agitated writing, both dark and implacable. The second movement adagio is unsettled. The moveable left hand is one of increased agitation contrasting with the right hand’s pervasive reiterations; calm moments are soon broken and the movement ends uneasily. Koppel’s Intermezzo is sparer, less acerbic, less spiky and more relaxed, certainly in the context of the other movements whilst the finale is decisive, contrastive to be sure but in a way that implies a working out of the troubling elements of the first two movements. It’s a convincing musical argument, stated with purposeful intelligence by Koppel and played by him with incisive assurance. And very well worth a listen. The Miniatures meanwhile were written during a stay in Australia in 1976. The largo is inward; the moderato is quirky and rhythmically alive and insistent whilst the Allegro is capricious with usefully varied dynamics.

The second disc gives us three composers much admired by Koppel. The Schubert D850 dates from a broadcast of 1969 – full of trenchant first movement attacks. Here there is some slight tape deterioration in small patches - and the sound imparts a slightly hard tone to the piano. Never mind – the Con Moto second movement displays Koppel’s Schubertian simplicity and his mastery of a kind of engulfing grandeur not unconnected to pain. He is playful and stern by contrast in the Scherzo whilst his finale is full of finesse and delicacy and some subtle rubato. The Brahms items date from 1957 and were recorded on a table in front of loudspeakers in Koppel’s home. There is occasionally some wavery and constricted tone but it’s welcome news that Koppel had the curiosity to record himself; the performances, as with so much else, no longer survive in the Danish Radio archives; shades of the BBC. He is quite provocative in the Paganini Variations with a lot of precisely graded staccato playing and he is intensely musical in the Liszt, especially Au Lac de Vallenstadt, a notably successful traversal.

Danacord invite anyone who has Koppel radio tapes from 1950-70 to contact them. They are keen to publish much more of Koppel’s output and cite important recitals of works such as the Prokofiev sonatas, Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasia and standard Schubert and Beethoven sonatas amongst others. I am happy to endorse and publicise their invitation not least because of the imagination of Koppel’s playing and the hard-won riches of his compositions. The next volume in the series is of the Chamber Music and I await it with high expectation.

Jonathan Woolf

Experience the imagination of Koppel’s playing and the hard-won riches of his compositions.… see Full Review

 


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