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Herman D. KOPPEL (1908-1998)
Piano Quintet Op.114 (1988) [11:09] ¹
Nine Variations Op.80 (1969) [9:14] ²
Piano Quintet Op.57 (1953) [27:50] ³
Arne Balk-Møller (violin); Ida Speyer Grøn (viola); Henrik Brendstrup (cello); Christina Bjørkøe (piano) ¹
Arne Balk-Møller (violin); Henrik Brendstrup (cello); Christina Bjørkøe (piano) ²
Johannes Søe Hansen (violin); Arne Balk-Møller (violin); Ida Speyer Grøn (viola); Henrik Brendstrup (cello); Christina Bjørkøe (piano) ³
Rec. Mantziusgården, Birkerød, May 2005 and January 2006
DACAPO 8.226003 [48:25]

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The Koppel series from Dacapo has been a most heartening one, either restoring to the catalogues works that have been absent for some time or giving us disc premieres. Equally worthy of note has been the restoration of Koppel’s own performances on Danacord. In this respect adherents and collectors will know, as the booklet reminds us, that Koppel made two recordings of his Piano Quintet, the first an LP with his eponymous group in 1956 and again nearly twenty five years later, this time with the Danish Quartet.

This is the major work here, a big twenty-eight minute and three movement quintet set securely in "the tradition" which in Koppel’s case usually veers toward Bartók, Stravinsky and Nielsen but here the axis is definitely and surprisingly - for me at least - Brahms and Bartók.

It’s the teaky sonority that proclaims its Brahmsian inheritance and the strong unison passages gather weight and power. There’s nothing especially backward looking about it otherwise – it was written in 1953 – though its flirtation with folkloric episodes gives it a distinctively Danish cast in that respect. Koppel manages to balance his heftier sonority with these little escapee moments where episodes are deftly and lightly sprung. The slow central movement is the heart. A passacgalia tread witnesses a curiously compelling and creative division between the strings’s gravity and the piano’s rather dutiful detachment. The finale brings out the full quotient of Koppel’s absorption of Bartókian models but listen out for the rather nocturnal B section, which has a rather withdrawn intensity and is marvellously scored.

The Piano Quartet is a much later work. It was completed when Koppel was nearing eighty and is compact, lasting eleven minutes, and cast in one movement with five clear sections. Tonal and with elements that strike the ear as syncopated the most compelling stretch is the rapt slow section. Here he thins the ensemble to post-Nielsen essentials before launching a stalking bass figure for the piano to signal the abruptly satisfying end.

The most aloof and difficult of this triptych is the Nine Variations. Written in the turbulent sixties – 1969 to be precise – this is the most outspokenly modernist and uneasy work of Koppel’s that I’ve yet encountered. It’s written for a conventional piano trio but the sonorities are uneasy and the atonal elements are deliberately uninviting. As to whether Koppel felt impelled to write such a work, given the prevailing orthodoxies of the day, is a moot point – though a persuasive one I think – but the result has a certain chilly and academic distance.

The performance of this and the companion works are all one could ask for. They’re sensitive when necessary and suitably rich toned in the quintet. As ever the series has been splendidly annotated and equally well recorded. Koppel’s legacy is in safe hands with Dacapo.

Jonathan Woolf



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