Saturday 29 November 2014

First rate performances from Marianna Bednarska and the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Henrik Vagn Christensen of Anders Koppel’s four marimba concertos on a new release from Dacapo

The son of the composer and pianist Herman D. Koppel (1908-98), Anders Koppel (b.1947) was born in Copenhagen, Denmark and was a co-founder of the rock group Savage Rose. From 1976 to 2012 he was a member of the trio Bazaar. He also plays in the trio Koppel-Andersen-Koppel which includes his son, saxophone player Benjamin Koppel.

Koppel has composed music for eight ballets for the New Danish Dance Theatre and music for more than 150 films, 50 theatrical plays and three musicals. He has also composed more than 90 works for classical ensembles, chamber music and 20 concertos, among them two saxophone concertos and four marimba concertos.

It is the four marimba concertos that are features on a new release from Dacapo Records with marimba player Marianna Bednarska and the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Henrik Vagn Christensen . This new release includes no less than three world premiere recordings.

The Concerto No. 1 for Marimba and Orchestra (1995) was written for the final of the International Percussion Competition in Luxembourg. The marimba opens the Allegro with a rhythmic theme taken up by the orchestra, quickly finding a jaunty stance. The opening marimba theme is repeated then varied with the orchestra, a very catchy tune that really sticks in the listener’s mind. There is a terrific little cadenza before the music heads to the coda.

In the Adagio the marimba picks out a lovely melody over a quiet orchestral background. A solo violin joins, blending exquisitely with the marimba and orchestra before gently moving into a lovely flowing melody. There are some beautifully sensitive phrases for marimba retaining a slightly playful quality.

The Andante really dances forward with a lively theme for marimba with a fine orchestral accompaniment before rising to a more dynamic passage. The music continues through some very fine fast passages for marimba superbly played. Halfway through there is an extended cadenza that picks up the main theme and subjects it to some terrific variations before leading to the lively coda.

This is a really captivating concerto in the lighter vein.

The Allegro ma non Troppo of the Concerto No. 2 for Marimba and String Orchestra (2000) opens with a repeated note from the marimba, like a pulse or ticking sound before the orchestra join and the music is varied. The ticking motif still occasionally peeks through and is never far away. This is an ingenious idea representing the relentless tick-tock of time. The ticking theme speeds up by grouping two notes on the marimba and repeating them before moving through some fine flourishes for the soloist, brilliantly played.  The string writing fits so well around the marimba and has many fine moments in its own right. The cadenza arrives before moving quickly to the coda, full of rhythmic sweep with that ticking appearing again and leading straight into the L’istesso tempo with the marimba picking out a theme over a swaying orchestral accompaniment.

This is a movement full of strange yet very attractive ideas with some very fine playing from Marianna Bednarska and some really fine string playing from the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra under Henrik Vagn Christensen before rising to lead into A tempo where scurrying strings lead on before the marimba joins to take up the theme as both soloist and orchestra rush forward. There are some terrific scales on the marimba and a cadenza, with some brilliant playing from Bednarska, full of sensitivity and colour before leading to a lovely little coda.

Written for the Austrian marimba virtuoso Martin Grubinger and given its first performance by the Bruckner Orchestra in Linz Concerto No. 3 ‘Linzer’ for Marimba and Orchestra (2002 rev. 2003) used a late Romantic style orchestra.

In the Andante the marimba introduces a theme that sounds as though it is ready to break out into a full blown romantic tune. It is joined by the orchestra as the music sweeps ahead, the marimba causing the music to pause as the rhythmic theme is played. The music develops to a number of peaks with a cadenza, full of subtleties with little themes appearing before the orchestra rejoins and the music gently moves ahead, flowing into the second movement Meno mosso.

This movement has a flowing orchestral theme, surely the one that has been hinted at from the beginning. The marimba enters as the orchestra picks up on the rhythmic theme and proceeds at a leisurely walking pace. The cello section accompany then brass as the marimba plays a theme around the romantic melody. The music becomes more dramatic and dynamic with some fine passages for marimba, timpani then sound a dramatic orchestral passage before the marimba rejoins to lead the orchestra forward at its leisurely pace, rising dynamically before leading into the final movement, A tempo.

In this movement there are staccato phrases from the orchestra and some wonderfully fluent playing from the soloist with some terrific jazzy moments, full of energy and punch with, variously, timpani and bass drum beating out the rhythm. When the cadenza arrives there is some very fine playing, with lovely sonorities and colours before suddenly taking off to the grand coda.

Concerto No. 4 ‘In Memory of Things Transient’ for Marimba and Orchestra (2006) was commissioned by Wiener Mozartjahr 2006 and is dedicated to Martin Grubinger. It was given its premiere by him at the Musikverein in Vienna as part of the celebrations of the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. The title refers to an ancient marble stone discovered in a clearing of a Swedish forest by the composer and his wife.

There is an orchestral opening to the Moderato with a sudden flourish before bringing a fast but quiet rhythmic pulse to which the marimba joins. The orchestration here is brilliantly done as it flows softly around the soloist who picks out a counterpoint as well as some lovely scales and flourishes.

The Adagio brings a sudden dramatic halt to the flow before the orchestra leads, with the marimba, the music forward in a lovely section with sudden flourishes from the marimba. Towards the end an organ is heard behind the gently played marimba theme leading into the Adagio with the timpani and orchestra bringing a lovely melody, at first underpinned by ‘sliding’ timpani, a quite magical passage out of which a sudden little dramatic outburst appear. There are lovely dissonances for the marimba with an atmosphere, textures, harmonies and colours that are remarkable.

We are led seamlessly into the fourth movement A tempo (l’istesso tempo) where the drama of the same theme picks up, becoming more violent. There is a short cadenza before the organ brings a jolly little tune for the Allegro with orchestra and marimba joining in, full of good humour and fun with percussion bringing an added touch.

We are taken straight into the Meno mosso, peasant – Allegro appassionato which brings more dynamic, rhythmic music with spectacularly fine playing from Marianna Bednarska above the raucous orchestral accompaniment. But it is the insistent marimba theme that drives the music forward before the organ alone plays a gentle tune to which the marimba adds little ‘drips’ of sound. The orchestra joins to add a more dynamic contribution as we are led quite forcefully into another Adagio rising up ever more dramatically. Once the music drops back, the organ is heard momentarily before a gentle marimba theme takes us into the final Allegro – meno mosso, pesante where the music lightly and gently dances forward, the marimba skipping over the orchestral accompaniment. A quotation from Mozart’s Piano Sonata No.11 is heard before a sudden outburst brings the conclusion.

The Concerto No. 4 is a spectacularly fine piece, receiving here a first rate performance from Marianna Bednarska and the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Henrik Vagn Christensen, as do all of these works

P.S. to a Concerto (1995) for marimba solo, composed after the first performance of his Concerto No.1 for Marimba and Orchestra, makes a fine encore. An attractive little theme is varied to considerable effect as the soloist brings some very fine moments.

Both Marianna Bednarska (marimba) and the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Henrik Vagn Christensen deserve the upmost praise for these fine performances. They receive an excellent recording from Symfonien, Aalborg, Denmark and there are detailed booklet notes.

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