Music of Herbert & Benjamin Koppel

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H. KOPPEL: Piano Concerto No. 3.* Pastorale: Allegretto. 10 Piano Pieces, Op. 20. B. KOPPEL: 9 Dialogical Responses for Alto Sax & Piano+ / Rikke Sandberg, pno; *South Jutland Symphony Orch.; Bo Holten, cond; +Benjamin Koppel, a-sax / Danacord DACOCD856

Herbert D. Koppel (1908-1998) was a famous Danish-Jewish composer who wrote a great number of works in his 90 years and was also a famed pianist. Benjamin Koppel (b. 1974) is a jazz composer and alto saxophonist, the composer’s grandson. Between them, they created all the music on this album.

Although only one of Herbert Koppel’s pieces, the 1932 Music for Jazz Orchestra, has any relationship to jazz, there is an evident connection in the highly rhythmic, Jewish-influenced pieces that he wrote, and the 1948 Piano Concerto is one of these. Sharp, decisive rhythmic attacks permeate the orchestral writing as the pianist ruminates around it. Because of this, the piece sounds almost Stravinskian in concept though Koppel clearly created his own personal style. Later on in the movement, there is an exchange of staccato brass figures with the piano that add excitement, and the pace accelerates even more at the end of the movement. This is really an interesting piece!

The second movement begins in an almost disappointingly melodic vein with an oboe solo, yet the tonality sounds unsettled. Moreover, as the movement develops, Koppel makes the music ever edgier and includes a roiling passage played in the piano’s low range while the orchestra provides biting commentary. The last movement is a really wild ride, in some respects resembling the Khachaturian Violin Concerto I had just reviewed before this.

Next up we hear a fairly brief piano “Pastorale,” interesting if not really ear-grabbing. But the rest of the disc is pretty interesting, juxtaposing Herman Koppel’s 10 Piano Pieces with apparent responses from his grandson on alto sax (with piano). What’s interesting here is that, although Benjamin Koppel is very much a jazz musician, he reined in his improvising tendencies somewhat, writing pieces that fit the mood of his grandfather’s works—only with a blues feeling in them. The piano accompaniments, however, all sound written out, relatively simple and are not bluesy at all. Interestingly, however, pianist Rikke Sandberg plays Herman Koppel’s pieces—and a few of Benjamin’s as well—with a nice syncopated style that makes them fit together like fingers in a glove, and not all of Benjamin’s pieces are strongly jazz-flavored. Hear, for instance, No. 3 with its delicate lyricism, so classical that you’d never suspect that a jazz composer wrote it. Moreover, although Benjamin’s music is less modern in its harmonic fittings, it somehow meshes well. In his “response” No. 8, Benjamin Koppel really breaks loose, playing a wild improvisation on his alto while pianist Sandberg plays strong ostinato chords behind him.

This is a really interesting album, although I can just see the classical lovers who buy it rolling their eyes over the alto sax variations!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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