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Herman D KOPPEL (1908-1998)
Symphony no 3. Op 39
Symphony no 4, Op 42.
Aalborg Symphony Orchestra/Moshe Atzmon. DDD
DA CAPO MARCO POLO 8.226016 [62 46]


This is the third volume of the symphonies of the Danish composer Herman D Koppel who lived from 1908 to 1998. Volume 1 containing symphonies six and seven are on 8.224135 and volume two containing symphonies 1 and 2 are on 8.224205.

Herman David Koppel was born of Jewish parents who lived in Blaski in Poland. But Herman was born in Copenhagen to where his family had moved in 1907 at a time when many Jewish families were migrating to escape the hatred that was being shown to them. Herman was the eldest in the family and developed into a fine pianist. He was admitted to the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen when he was seventeen when Carl Nielsen was one of the assessors who approved candidates for entry into the Conservatory. Four year later Koppel struck up a friendship with Nielsen playing most of Nielsen's piano works for the composer to check and revise. In return Nielsen arranged performances of Koppel's music. In 1930 Koppel made his debut as a pianist and included some of his own music.

Koppel was not a snob but took an interest in all types of music from jazz to two great composers of the time, Bartók and Stravinsky. He composed music for films and revues. He was not going to be pigeon-holed as a traditional. He married a Danish woman who would be deemed a Christian, in so much that she was not a Jew. He became an accompanist of renown and duly paid well for his services. He worked with the famous Danish tenor Aksel Schiotz and made many recording with him.

The Second World War was very worrying. Koppel was a Jew and Hitler and his Socialists taught that Jews had no rights and, even today, we cannot grasp the full evil and horror of what the Nazis did to the Jews and there are those who advocate that the time has come to forgive. Koppel with his wife and two sons, Thomas and Anders, fled to Sweden in 1943 to stay with Baroness Lea Akerhielm whom Koppel had known from childhood. The Symphony no. 3 is dedicated to her. This renewed contact was made after Koppel had spoken on Stockholm Radio. The Koppels lived in Sweden until the war was over. Towards the end of the war he composed his Symphony no. 3.

There are those who take issue with me and sometimes vehemently disputing the claim that the man and his music are a collaboration. People claim that writing about a composer should be contained to writing about his music only and not his life or his private life and that we should not open any cupboards that may have skeletons therein. But as in his life so is the composer in his music. The two are inseparable.

The Third Symphony is the composer's anxiety about Denmark and expresses the horror of the Nazi machine and the lamentations of the down-trodden people. Koppel does not portray the Nazi regime with sounds of soldiers marching and machine gun fire as does Shostakovich. His portrayal is bleak and sparse and, sadly, this does not always set the symphony in the best light.

It is in one movement but three sections. It begins lugubriously with sinister staccato bassoon punctuation as an ostinato. The sound is hollow and a mood picture is built up. A recurring four note theme is one of sorrow in a scenario of unbearable tragedy. The music is mellow rather than morbid. But I cannot say that it is beautiful. There is a glorious string section with horn support which is beautiful. The music heads towards a climax but the music remains transparent and sparse and not turgid or overstated. A section of fast string writing supported by woodwind and then by the brass is very impressive but the music is episodic and does not hang together. The four note theme returns as if there is another outburst of tears. At 7.34 ff there begins a scherzo-like section with rhythmic interest from the woodwind with a lovely broad string melody. This builds up with punctuating brass and a soaring violin melody. All very impressive but it gets nowhere. The music loses its way and becomes self-indulgent. It lifts again with some magnificent counterpoint with three themes combined in an agitated section. This is real class but I did feel the performance could have been more persuasive. I believe the music is better than how it is played here. More melodic fragments appears with those hollow bassoons adding an uneasy hollowness which must represent Nazi oppression. About 21 minutes in there is some real drama with some flawless string writing but then it gets nowhere and the music subsides into stillness and resignation and it is somewhat repetitious and tedious. Often the music has a chamber feel about it but not in the sense of standard chamber formats such as a string quartet or a wind quintet.

I think this symphony is too personal a document for us to fully value. It has some wonderful moments but overall I don't think it works. The sincerity is there as is the craftsmanship but the structure is too loose, the material not memorable enough and too many dull patches or sloughs of despond.

The Symphony no. 4 was completed in August 1946 and is a better work. It begins with a rhythmic figure and another ostinato; it is not the bassoon this time, but the clarinet. These two features are the backbone to the music whereas the second subject is a sort of hymn in praise of the countryside but very brief and disturbed by the uncompromising rhythmic feature under the solo clarinet. Two and a half minutes in there is a terrific sardonic outburst with some tremendous moments, notably controlled power, something few composers have successfully achieved. Listen to the braying horns absolutely stunning, and here Moshe Atzmon has got it just right. The trombones are impressive and the heartbeats of the timpani are somewhat syncopated realising the uncertainty of the times. It is as if we have been standing on a pavement waiting for a procession which comes and passes by and when it is on top of you it is startling. But the music is episodic with powerful sections alternating with peaceful ones and the transitions are not always logical. A soaring violin melody is unbearably beautiful with horn figures and then the rhythmic ostinato returns. Listen out for the glorious trumpet affirmation, timpani and bubbling horn writing, all very exciting. The orchestration is simply superb. Clearly the composer is displaying confidence because the war is ended and the music has a victorious feel. But it is neither pompous nor arrogant. I am still troubled by the sudden changes from power to peace which would work better if the music naturally progressed one from the other.

The second movement shows the influence of the great Bartók. It is an intermezzo evolving a type of humour and that which is grotesque and there is no doubt what the composer has in mind. There some really choice moments and the march-like music is infectious. It is brilliant, stunning, exciting and the disc is worth buying just for this. It is breathtaking and simply fantastic. And I say again, what splendid orchestration!

The finale is episodic and begins in a very tense fashion. The violins are high and the rhythms a little unusual. Here is the march - the main ingredient of the movement. The music is sometimes sinister, eerie and, at other times, playful but it heads towards a climax and the composer keeps us in suspense. The middle section is restrained and meanders a little, although there are some fine instrumental solos, before the march returns in a bellicose fashion.

If you understand the man, you will understand his music. His life, and his private life, is often the key to an understanding and appreciation of his music.

During the writing of this symphony Koppel learned that his mother's family had been brutally destroyed by the Germans and so the resurgence of the march tempo is brutal with another nagging ostinato. The music is staggering and yet the violence is not overstated. It makes its point convincingly and, unlike Elgar and others, his powerful music is not merely trashy noise. There is a brief coda which has a soft brightness about it as if it were a message of hope. The final bars are all triumph with a swaggering horn theme. Totally satisfying, a complex but convincing symphony.

David C F Wright

see also review by Rob Barnett



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