“Double Triple Koppel” = ANDERS KOPPEL: Concerto for Recorder, Saxophone, and Orchestra; Triple Concerto for Mezzo Saxophone, Cello, Harp, and Orchestra ‒ Michala Petri, recorder / Benjamin Koppel, saxophones / Tine Rehling, harp / Eugene Hye-Knudsen, cello / Odense Sym. Orch. / Henrik Vagn Christensen ‒ Dacapo multichannel SACD 6220633 [Distr. by Naxos]; 67:25 (8/14/15) ***1/2:</br>
“SALLY BEAMISH: The Singing” = The Singing: Concerto for Accordion and Orchestra; A Cage of Doves; Under the Wing of the Rock; Reckless; Trumpet Concerto ‒ James Crabb, accordion / Branford Marsalis, sax / Håkan Hardenberger, trumpet / Royal Scottish National Orch. / Nat. Youth Orch. of Scotland (Trumpet Concerto) / Martyn Brabbins ‒ BIS multichannel SACD BIS-2156 [Distr. by Naxos]; 73:56 (10/9/15) ****:
Two contemporary composers who manage to do up the old wine of the classical concerto in surprising new skins.
Here we have two very different approaches to the concerto from two very different contemporary composers. Anders Koppel (b. 1947) is the son of the distinguished Danish composer Herman D. Koppel. In fact, Anders is now better known than his father, thanks to a loyal following among enthusiasts of crossover music, and specifically those who appreciate the melding of classical music and jazz. I don’t happen to be an enthusiast, but I try to keep my ears open to the possibilities of good music from a variety of sources, and Anders Koppel is clearly able to spin a good tune and develop it in a very musical way. He’s also an accomplished orchestrator and, as a former instrumentalist in a variety of groups including the rock band Savage Rose and Bazaar, he knows how to write virtuoso bits for an instrumentalist.
Bazaar, a group he worked with for thirty-five years or so, “has cultivated a unique idiom combining improvisation, Balkan music and Anders Koppel’s own compositions.” Koppel’s association with the group probably helped him springboard into the role of classical composer by suggesting how jazz and various types of so-called world music could happily coexist with the tenets of classical music. Koppel made his “breakthrough as a composer of concert music” with the 1990 Toccata for Vibraphone and Marimba. This start allowed him to write with increasing confidence virtuoso vehicles for soloists and orchestra, often for unusual instruments such as the aluphone, a tuned percussion instrument that looks like it was designed by NASA. Oh, and then there are the concertos for unusual combinations of instruments, of which the two on the current disc are prime examples. I can’t remember another concerto for recorder and saxophone, and it may be quite a while until another is written, but this one will do quite nicely in the interim. It’s the reason I’ll come back to this disc in the future.
As you can imagine, the pairing of recorder and sax makes for some loopy musical moments, and Koppel doesn’t shy from them, hurling his soloists right off the bat into a hectic, be-bopping first movement that relaxes only for a cadenza or two. In fact, the cadenzas throughout the concertos offer up dreamlike excursions rather than virtuoso interludes; in them, the soloists engage in lyrical dialogs before it’s off to the races again. The second movement is mostly a subdued and dreamy passacaglia whose varied repetitions of the theme have a hypnotic effect. The last movement is another juggernaut launched by thundering timpani and crashing cymbals. Then the soloists zip along above a jogging figure in the strings.
The outer movements are great fun for me, largely because the two wonderful performers and the orchestra seem to be having so much fun. For forty plus years, I guess, Michala Petri has been the finest recorder player on the planet, and while this music must be quite a change of pace for her, she doesn’t miss a beat and seems to relish the near-provisional quality of her solos. Koppel’s son Benjamin has collaborated with his father for a number of years and so is a hand-in-glove fit for this music, plus he’s a marvelous sax player.
In the Triple Concerto Benjamin plays another unusual instrument, the mezzo saxophone, created by Danish instrument maker Peter Jessen. It has a mellifluous tone that blends well with the mellow cello and harp that Anders Koppel has chosen as the other members of the solo contingent. The concerto is in two big movements, the second an improbable twenty-four minutes long. In this concerto, there is much more of the dreamy and lyrical writing that’s characteristic of Koppel’s art and that has won him a following among those seeking an alternative to the sometimes harsh reality of contemporary classical music. While I appreciate Koppel’s commitment to tonal music and its beauties, I really don’t care for the long, lyrical passages in his work, in which the soloists seem to be crooning an instrumental ballad or torch song with orchestral backing. In these passages, the music often turns saccharine and too easy, too sedate. And there are a lot of them in the Triple Concerto. So despite the expert playing, I’ll stick with the Double Concerto. Fine sound, by the way, with the soloists placed in a very natural perspective vis-à-vis the powerfully recorded orchestra.
With English composer Sally Beamish, we have another contemporary musician who is comfortable in the realm of tonal music and to a lesser extent, with recourse to gestures of popular music. As a transplant to Scotland, Beamish takes her cue from Scottish folk music as well as the Scottish landscape. The Singing “draws on the idea of songs, blessings, and prayer, which infused every aspect of life in 19th-century highland communities,” including Celtic working songs and the pibroch, “the heavily ornamented ‘classical music’ of the Highland Bagpipers.” A novice in such musical matters, I’ll have to take her word for all this, but in the last of seven variations on the pibroch theme, the accordion does produce a canny imitation of bagpipe drones, and there is a folksy lyricism to the music, overshadowed by a grimmer tone throughout most of the piece.
The Singing alludes to the Highland Clearances, through which, beginning in the 1760s, clan lords of the Highlands turned their tenants out of their farms and villages in order to dedicate the land to the lucrative venture of sheep raising. Hence the often angry and anguished nature of the seven variations on the pibroch theme that constitute the second movement and introduction to the last. The work begins with the whooshing sounds of the accordion and woodwinds “simply ‘breathing’”; then we hear an evocation of bird sounds, recalling the happy times before the Clearances, I assume. These same musical gestures return toward the end of the piece, hinting at a renewed sense of place and an optimistic vision of the future. The often melancholy sound of the accordion is an apt vehicle for fulfilling the composer’s musical ends, whether engaged in nature painting or in reproducing folk song and hymn tune.
In this music I seem to sense the influence of two of Beamish’s mentors: Peter Maxwell Davies, in her ability to integrate folk material within a wholly personal idiom, and Oliver Knussen, in the periodically nervous, chattering energy of her writing.
Under the Wing of the Rock recalls another tale of Scotland, this one about the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692. A soldier, ordered to kill a young mother and her daughter, instead fed and clothed them and hid them behind the rock of the title. Originally scored for viola and orchestra, this version of the work for alto sax is dedicated to soloist Branford Marsalis. Again, there are reminiscences of Gaelic hymns and songs, as well as a healthy dose of nervous, jazzy syncopation, appropriate given both the solo instrument and the dedicatee, a jazz master.
And for something completely different, there is the Trumpet Concerto, which attempts to paint different aspects of the urban landscape, from an “urbane aubaude,” in which the city comes to noisy life, through sultry evocations of a smoky jazz club, to a final “idea of violence and urban decay.” Beamish has actually included metal junk in her percussion section, “parts of scrapped cars and scaffolding sections.” The last movement, therefore, is quite a trip: noisy, edgy, and exciting. There’s an air of dogged pursuit as if by some urban demon that recalls for me, maybe incongruously, the last hectic section of The Rite of Spring.
That’s one of the things I like about Beamish’s concertos. They have resonances, recall other times, other musics while remaining entirely fresh and contemporary.
The performances here are outstanding in their virtuosity and commitment to the composer’s vision. The recording, inscribed at Henry Wood Hall, in the gritty urban confines of Glasgow, is powerful and true and in surround too. Heartily recommended!