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Dacapo - The National Music Anthology of Denmark

Format:  SACD

Catalogue Number:  6.220633

Barcode:  747313163366

Release Date:  May 2015

Period:  21st Century


Double Triple Koppel

27 October 2015  Fanfare
Lynn René Bayley

Anders Koppel (b1947) is described in the notes for this recording, which bears the title Double Triple Koppel, as a composer “With one foot firmly planted in the classical European musician tradition and the other in world music, rock and jazz.” He learned to play both piano and clarinet and was a member of the rock group Savage Rose.

I love music that tries to fuse classical music and jazz but am not at all fond of mixing classical music with rock, for the simple reason that the twain do not meet. As trumpeter Roy Eldridge so succinctly put it, the jazz beat goes somewhere while the rock beat stays somewhere, and since both classical music and jazz are art forms of evolving structures, the rock beat just bogs things down (on top of which, I find it annoying and ugly to my ears). The two works presented on this CD are relatively recent compositions, the Triple Concerto dating from 2009 and the Concerto for Recorder, Saxophone, and Orchestra from 2010. One of the more unusual aspects of the latter work, which is presented first on this CD, is that Koppel has written here for the recorder in its sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass forms. It is also interesting that he uses Michala Petri to play these instruments, a musician renowned for her virtuosity but certainly not for her ability to play in a jazz (or rock) style.

The notes proclaim that the first movement has syncopated figures and strong, almost jazz-big-band-like orchestral playing, pitted against the sopranino recorder, which is like “a rhythmic motor,” evoking memories of the Baroque concerto grosso “in a modern rhythmic world.” I found the rhythms to be halfway between jazz and classical, with a touch of Latin rhythm about them, and to be honest I felt that Petri’s recorder playing acted more as a foil to the alto saxophone soloist. Interestingly, Petri handles her assignment brilliantly, even producing a bit of a swing to her playing that I wouldn’t have automatically thought she could do. In fact, my one regret in listening to this performance was that it was the Odense Symphony Orchestra that had the hardest time producing something close to a jazz rhythm, not the soloists. Koppel does a great job of focusing our attention on the soloists as the heart and soul of the music. To a certain degree, then, one can make a generalization here that this is more like a jam session with occasionally structured and orchestrated background than a concerto in the sense that the solo instruments interact with the ensemble. Only occasionally do we hear passages that employ the latter principle. The composer’s son, Benjamin Koppel, is the sax soloist in both works, and he is splendid. There is a duo-cadenza for the main instruments beginning at 4:11 and a remarkable passage around 4:50 that sounds for all the world as if it were improvised, but is probably written out. And again and again, I was much taken with the verve and utter commitment of Petri’s playing. She really is a heck of a musician.

In the course of this first movement, I couldn’t help but feel that Koppel was influenced, directly or indirectly, by the work of the late Eddie Sauter, surely one of the most underrated (if not occasionally unjustly maligned) of jazz composers. Coming up during the heyday of swing and often working in the shadow of the “hot” arrangers who Americans preferred (Jimmy Mundy, Eddie Durham, Billy May, Jerry Gray, Buster Harding), Sauter brought an early form of classical sensibility to jazz arranging and orchestration in his remarkably subtle and unusual mixtures of brass and reeds, eventually culminating his work in two pieces for saxist Stan Getz in the 1960s, Focus and the Concerto for Stan Getz. For whatever reason, much of Sauter’s best work is neglected or forgotten, but I heard his fingerprints all over this concerto. In any event, this is most certainly music that Sauter would have appreciated and applauded. It crosses boundaries in such a way that the jazz feeling prevails even when the underlying structure is classical. This was always Sauter’s aesthetic, allied to his remarkable facility for turning the harmony on a pivot note within a chord.

The second movement is a passacaglia, the basic theme repeated by different sections of the orchestra, but to the naked ear what one hears (and absorbs) is a mysterious, somewhat unsettled quality. Petri plays the sopranino, soprano, and bass recorders here, and the feeling is more strictly classical, at least until the alto sax takes over more of the musical progression around 2:38. Koppel’s writing for the orchestra here is remarkably subtle and colorful, using the winds in particular in a striking way. At 5:40 Koppel writes the equivalent of a “chase chorus” for the two soloists, and again the writing is more classical but with jazz inflections. And again, there is a duo-cadenza, around the 5:35 mark (this appears to be something that Koppel really delights in), and when the recorder again picks up the thread of the music, the orchestra enters only briefly, falling away yet again to allow the soloists free rein in their duet. Switching to bass recorder for the final section of the movement, Petri now leads Koppel in thematic material rather than the other way round, at least at first; the saxist then engages in counterpoint with the bass recorder as the movement draws to a close.

The third movement is indeed dramatic, but much less jocular than the first, and here the alto sax’s playing seems to borrow from the Stan Getz vernacular (yes, I’m aware that Getz played tenor sax, not alto). Written in D Minor, the music uses an unusual syncopated rhythm, around which both soloists and the orchestra gravitate as moths to a flame. Indeed, the rhythm acts almost as a vortex, pulling all within its orbit into the fray. What I found most interesting about this movement is that, despite the busy tempo, the music somehow remains relatively cool, particularly in the passage where Petri plays constant, repeated triplets on the recorder while the lower strings play counterpoint. Of course, dynamics changes are nearly impossible to do on a recorder … one can normally only differentiate between full volume and a little softer, no more. Thus Koppel has to create his dynamic effects in the orchestral part, which he does, along with occasional assistance from the saxophone. At the 5:30 mark we hear the slightly ominous theme of the second movement make a brief return, but this time querulous notes from the sax and perky, upbeat chirps from the recorder help the mood, although the soloists play a brooding interlude in tandem. This dark, slow mood continues for some time, only picking up in tempo again after a recorder cadenza, followed by alto sax and orchestra, at 8:25. From this point on, the music builds in both intensity and complexity, including a busy waltz tempo that comes and goes rather quickly, sometimes interspersed with bars in 4/4. Curiously, there is a certain Nielsen-like feeling to the orchestral writing in the final section which begins around the 10-minute mark.

The Triple Concerto features an instrument I had frankly never heard of before, the mezzo saxophone, along with harp and cello. Talk about strange musical bedfellows! When I Googled the mezzo saxophone, the first four hits referred to this Koppel concerto. The liner notes state that this saxophone was developed by Danish instrument maker Peter Jessen. Apparently, it is pitched in F and was also manufactured by Conn (you can find particulars at the web site saxophone.org/resources/guestArticle/view/article/16). A company called Aquilasax announced the production of a mezzo saxophone in F in 2012, but the company’s web site now claims it is not available and at least one sax player has commented online that they never did produce any such instrument; I must therefore assume that the Jessen and Conn instruments are the only ones of their kind.

The music for this concerto seemed to be more classical in the orchestral framework and only jazz-influenced in the solo saxophone work, although when the sax and cello begin playing together a more aggressive beat is heard coming from the massed forces behind them. Still, Koppel seems to be switching back and forth in mood constantly in this work, which is fine because by and large the music works. Oddly, I felt that the cellist’s high range sounded a bit odd, almost artificial, as if being played through a megaphone or somehow strangely amplified in such a way as to slightly distort the tone. By and large, the harp part is relegated to rhythmic accompaniment. This is not a part that demands an Adele Girard or a Casper Reardon (the two great jazz harpists of the 1930s and early 1940s). Some of the thematic material in this movement (particularly the melody that emerges at 4:25) sounded to me a bit close to pop music, but then it suddenly veers off into a portion that sounds a bit like Richard Strauss, then Kurt Weill, then (as the Monty Python members were wont to say) “something completely different.” Koppel keeps interest up via a remarkable three-way conversation between the soloists that sounds for all the world like a triple chase chorus, although here it is the saxophone that gets most involved in the jazz rhythms (along with the orchestra). At about 7:22 there is a harp passage that does swing, and Tine Rehling does a fine job with it. My sole complaint was that she didn’t seem to be miked very advantageously; there were many moments when the ensemble was playing where she all but disappeared from sonic view. (Since I was listening through headphones I could hear her, but through speakers some of her playing would be lost.)

The second movement is the longest of any on this recording at 23:49. The solo cello sets the stage with a rising motif that at first sounds like the beginning of the William Tell Overture, but soon changes direction as the cello is joined by the saxophone adding commentary and the harp adding color. The general mood is languorous and a bit pensive, almost like a jazz ballad but much more formally structured. A gentle rocking motif played by the second violins acts as a backdrop to the sax and harp playing occasional fills in the musical progression. Eventually this triple interaction becomes busier and more complex, with the cello seemingly in remission until 3:44 into the movement, when it, too, enters, playing a rocking rhythm. Eventually the cello takes over the theme statements, playing a relaxed but interesting theme with rhythmic and harmonic changes throughout; the saxophone re-enters, the orchestra becomes louder and busier, and the keys continue to change and shift beneath the soloists’ feet. A pastoral theme played by the flutes and clarinets is heard behind the solo cello, then all three soloists, as the music develops. A long solo saxophone cadenza is then heard (again, in the middle of the movement, not at the end), after which we switch to E Minor, the cello plays a repeated rocking motif, the harp fills in the background, and the saxophone enters occasionally in the left channel playing its own ruminations. The liner notes refer to this as a “minimalist section,” but since the harp and saxophone parts are constantly evolving I hesitate to use that tag. The music slows down at 13:33, after which we hear a solo cello cadenza that makes some reference to Middle Eastern music in its use of modes; the harp and saxophone occasionally play interjections. We then enter a strange waltz section in D♭with allusions to A Minor, the theme played by the cello while the other two soloists play around him, then the orchestra re-enters as well. This is extraordinarily beautiful music, neither cheap nor tawdry; and the sudden, Strauss-like orchestral explosion at 17:45 is as surprising as it is logical in the movement’s overall design. The final section of this movement sounded to me a bit theatrical in design, but by no means bombastic or uninteresting.

This is music of remarkable creativity and power, a welcome respite from all the slick, historically informed, and bloodless performances/recordings of the older classics that seem to be produced by the truckload nowadays. Highly recommended.

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