Anders Koppel: Marimba Concertos
23 March 2015
International Record Review
The first marimba concerto was written by the American composer Paul Creston in 1940, and the next, for marimba and vibraphone (intended for a single player), by Milhaud in 1947. In fact, in around 1981, I encountered that single player, the charming Jack Connor, then a retired southern gentleman with a bow-tie but at the time of the commission a percussionist in the St Louis Symphony Orchestra; he was seeking a work for his concert debut. (When we met, I was working at the Institute of Economic Affairs, just along from St John’s, Smith Square, and Jack, who was also interested in free-market economics, had popped in for a chat about the ‘Thatcher Revolution’ then getting under way. When he discovered my musical interests, we spent the time talking about Darius Milhaud instead of Margaret Thatcher.)
By now there are something like 120 marimba concertos in existence, which means that these four by the Dane Anders Koppel (b.1947) constitute a not statistically insignificant percentage of the entire repertoire. The name might be familiar: Anders Koppel’s dad was the pianist and composer Herman D. Koppel (I knew him, too!), who was responsible for an entire dynasty of musical Danes. Since Anders Koppel has been active in rock and folk music and has written some 200 film or theatre scores, often with a Latin-American flavouring, it comes as no surprise that his classical idiom is accessible and undogmatic; it shows a mild awareness of modernism but little more. The first three of his marimba concertos, written in 1995, 2000 and 2002 respectively, observe the three-movement structure of tradition (they’re linked in No. 2), though not its fast-slow-fast tempo relationship; No. 4, from 2006, is an eight- movement suite. They’re all around the 20- minute mark.
No. 1, which has apparently notched up over 300 performances, opens with playful material in the marimba played off against a more martial tone from the orchestra; an element of dance is rarely far away. In the central Adagio a solo violin enjoys a wistful dialogue with the marimba, the two of them supported by dreamy, slow-moving harmonies in the orchestra. The finale may be marked Andante but it’s lively and good- natured, coasting along on a wave of sunny energy, pausing on occasion to take in the view. The solo P.S. to a Concerto, which is featured as a two-and-a-half-minute PS to this CD, was written after the premiere of the First Concerto.
No. 2 is scored for strings only, the distinction between its three movements, played attacca, obscured by their all observing the same tempo. Moreover, the ticking that announces the work recurs repeatedly, underlining the cohesion of its ideas but forgoing some of the contrasts of its predecessor.
No. 3 is labelled ‘Linzer’, because it was premiered by the Bruckner Orchestra in Linz, but Koppel used the weight of that late- Romantic body very sparingly: the orchestral musicians generally dialogue with the soloist as soloists or sections, tutti statements supervening rarely, and their darker tone is often offset by lighter ideas. The central Meno mosso nods to the memory of Bruckner with an intermittent walking bass under
singing strings, with just a hint of tongue-in- cheek affection, and the finale develops a wonderfully catchy onwards pulse, suggesting America more than Austria.
The Fourth Concerto bears the title ‘In Memory of Things Transient’ – an inscription seen by the composer on a crumbling stone monument – and its autumnal landscape is dotted with suggestions of evanescence, from the very opening archaic string gesture. But after the opening panel, the nostalgic mood is shaken off by a dramatic orchestral statement and the music seems to become more of a walk down memory lane, with snippets of familiar melodies floating past just too quickly to be pinned down. After a very lovely Adagio section, an organ offers a dance Koppel wrote for his folk-group Bazaar, which is joined by a fragment from Mozart’s ‘Rondo alla turca’ and the pace quickens into the final panels, the tempos giving and taking as earlier materials are passed in final review.
One sees instantly why, although a mere 20 years of age, Marianna Bednarska should have been chosen for this marimba showcase, where the solo instrument is almost never out of the spotlight: she has an impeccable technique, informed by a considerable sense of poetry. You might imagine that almost 80 minutes of marimba would stretch the patience of your ears, but not in Bednarska’s company; indeed, the opposite proves to be true: her surprisingly wide range of colour and tone keeps the attention engaged throughout. The playing of the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra under Henrik Vagn Christensen is likewise exemplary, and they have been captured in top-drawer recorded sound. My last salute is to Espen Tange for his helpful booklet notes.
A winner of a disc, then, especially recommended to those who are not immediately engaged by the idea of four marimba concertos nose to toe – give it a bash and I’m sure you’ll be won over.