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Herman D KOPPEL (1908-1998)
Symphony No. 3 Op. 39 (1944-45)
Symphony No. 4 Op. 42 (1946)
Aalborg Symphony Orchestra/Moshe Atzmon
Recorded at Symfonien, Aalborg, June and October 2001 (Symphony No. 3) and August 2000 (Symphony No. 4)
DACAPO 8.226016 [64.21]

I’ve written before about Danacord’s Koppel series, a wide-ranging conspectus that has embraced his symphonic, orchestral, concerto, chamber and vocal works. It’s also brought to the catalogue significant examples of Koppel’s own highly impressive pianism, both in his own works and of those whose influence can be felt in his music; Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bartók. This however is the first of the symphonic cycle that I’ve caught up with – though Symphonies One, Two, Six and Seven along with the Concerto for Orchestra have been reviewed on this site.

Koppel wrote the Third Symphony in neutral Sweden between 1944 and 1945. He’d had to leave Denmark the previous year and the one movement symphony, as he reminisced many years later, expressed the "fear mixed with horror we felt about the fate of Denmark." Lasting half an hour and cast in three sections this was the first of Koppel’s symphonies to be published, in 1946, since, dissatisfied with their performance, he withheld publication of the first two The Third grows from two motifs heard at the outset, on clarinet and on the cor anglais; there’s an angular string figure, jagged and unsettled which leads to the clarinet theme over ostinati before Koppel introduces a simpler, more affecting lyricism. But he knows precisely how to ratchet up the tension, constantly opposing the string’s desolate unease with the more winding and consoling woodwinds. There is also some bucolic writing – with diaphanous scoring; Koppel was something of a master at lightening texture and it’s salutary to listen to how lightly he orchestrates here. In the Allegro energico we get brass-fuelled insistence and a relentless drive before he slowly revisits earlier motifs and earlier angular fissures, the music now seeming increasingly freighted with adduced meaning.

The Fourth Symphony was premiered by Thomas Jensen in November 1946. The angularity of the earlier work’s opening is counterpointed by the rather malign figure that stalks the first movement of the Fourth and the consoling clarinet’s second subject. The high lying violins are rather insolently punctured and Koppel introduces some frantic and rhythmic brass tattoos and following these moments of violent candour there comes a moment of an almost achieved Chorale. The Intermezzo is firmly in the neo-classical camp and is full of crisp brass calls, thumping percussion and real power – something of a satiric shelter from the storming surrounding movements. Those abrupt juxtapositions are most heard in the finale, a terse and changeable one, full of edgy strings and rather bleak lowering brass. Episodes keep coming, from a strange and improbable march (which predictably breaks down) and ensuing wild drama, to the winds’ fillips and aerial traceries. And then from that deceptive relief to ever more martial cataclysm, a distant cousin of Holst’s Mars, in a pulverising episode from which the woodwinds emerge gingerly, like animals after a storm. Fanfares end the work ambiguously, though one can hope optimistically.

The finale of the Fourth shows Koppel at his most creatively ambitious in these symphonies. Idiomatic performances under Moshe Atzmon and Dacapo’s usual fine notes and clear recording only add to the attractiveness of these unsettled and unsettling works.

Jonathan Woolf

John Phillips has also listened to this disc

After releasing Symphonies 1, 2, 6 and 7 over the past couple of years we now have available Nos. 3 and 4. This is volume 3 in the series and I would urge anyone who is in the least bit interested in fairly modern Scandinavian symphonies to hear these works. I have been very impressed by the earlier volumes in the series and I give a very warm welcome to the present release. Like the other two discs in the series, this is a co-production between Dacapo and Danish Radio. The recordings are models of their kind – clear and detailed and well balanced by the sound engineers.

From the recording dates, all of the six initial symphonies were recorded fairly close together, so I expect it was a marketing decision to release them gradually rather than make up a boxed set of all seven of them. We only have one to go to enable music lovers to experience the whole of his canon.

Unlike some of his earlier works, which were all in three movements, the third symphony is in one movement, which is subdivided into six sections, lasting half an hour. The overriding impression of this composer’s symphonies is of clearly evident growth in the musical ideas and thematic development. I find that in many contemporary works, this element is entirely lacking, or else submerged in fashionable noise.

Koppel, was born in Denmark from parents of Polish origin, who fled to Denmark in 1907 with many other Jewish refugees. He was educated at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, where he was friendly with and received much helpful musical guidance from Carl Nielsen. The Koppel family has become well known within the musical establishment in Denmark with Herman becoming composer, teacher and performer. He married a Christian girl to the dismay of his parents. The family, composer, wife and two small children fled to neutral Sweden when Denmark was occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War. His two sons became rock stars (Savage Rose) and his daughter became the star soprano of the Royal Danish Opera. The composer himself became a professor at the Copenhagen Academy from 1955 to 1978, and was the accompanist to Aksel Schiotz on many of his fine recordings.

The third symphony was written whilst the composer and his family were in exile in Sweden. Whilst living there he made a re-acquaintance with an old childhood friend, now married to a Swedish baron. She was Lea Akerhielm and she was able to provide Koppel with a piano and peace and quiet to allow him to practise and compose. This symphony is dedicated to her. The symphony is not a programme work, but in mood and tone it raised the feelings the composer had about the fate of Denmark. It is an assured work and clearly shows that he had a wonderful grasp of his material and knew instinctively what to do with it.

The fourth symphony is dedicated to his former piano teacher, Anders Rachlew and his wife. It was premiered by Thomas Jensen and the Danish National Radio Orchestra on 7th November 1946. It starts with a contorted dance of death which is subject to extensive development, along with a pastoral hymn which is heard as a contrasting element of the movement. The remaining movements follow this pattern and hints of Bartók and Stravinsky may be heard, submerged within the work.

I am delighted to welcome this disc as an example of a mid-twentieth century composer who deserves to be much wider known and respected. Needless to say, both performances and recordings are first rate, and I cannot believe that anyone purchasing this disc will be in the least bit disappointed.

John Phillips

see also review by Rob Barnett


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