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Helena MUNKTELL (1852-1919)
Brännigar (Breaking Waves) Symphonic Poem (c. early 1890s) [11.09]
Suite for Large Orchestra (c. early 1890s) [19.14]
Valborgsmessoeld Poem Op.24 (published 1922) [11.27]
Suite dalécarlienne/Dalsuite (Dala Suite) Op.22 [23.16]
Gävle Symphony Orchestra/Tobias Ringborg
Recorded in January 2005 at the Gävle Concert Hall
STERLING CDS 1066-2 [65.32]



I suspect few will have heard of Helena Munktell. Born in 1852 she studied the piano first in her native Stockholm and then in under Julius Epstein, no less. But she had begun studies as a singer and seems to have kept both going in parallel until the desire to compose became unignorable. Her composition teacher in Paris was Benjamin Godard and later d’Indy – and both were to remain keenly interested in her career – and after tutelage she produced a number of works in Stockholm that were to make her name, a lot of it vocal and operatic. Her songs became quite popular as did her choral works. She seems to have suffered recurring health problems – eye disease – and died prematurely in 1919.

Her symphonic poem Brännigar (Breaking Waves) is dated to the early 1890s. Turbulent and quite heavily orchestrated this is emphatically not a case of late developing late-Romanticism, a kind of post-Mendelssohnian influence. Her greatest and most pressing influences, as reflected in her teachers, remained French and so there’s no sound either of any Wagnerian or Brahmsian influence. It’s true that the material, as such, is not especially memorable but it’s well handled and has a changeability to it, in its summoning up of implacable wave and reflective horizon-brass, that impresses. The noble sounding tread, with bardic harp, of the opening movement of the Suite for Large Orchestra sounds rather decorous. Munktell avoids a lugubrious andante preferring a free and warm one - and one which is not at all cloying. This is an attractive enough work but it tends to lack staying power. 

Valborgsmessoeld was her last orchestral work and was never performed during Munktell’s lifetime. It bears a strong impressionist stamp by now – it must have been written between about 1910 and 1919 – but also has a robustness that gives it a spine. There are strong and extrovert roles for percussion and brass but though it carries an evocative charge the material never grows optimally. Things tend to move paragraph by paragraph. Suite dalécarlienne/Dalsuite (Dala Suite) is a piece of nature painting in four movements. The first is freshly orchestrated and aerated and the Andante is a charmer, full of verve. The scherzo is terpsichorean and warmly laid out whilst the longest of the movements, the finale, opens with a gravely beautiful melody and caps it with fine counterpoint and a warm string cantilever. This is probably the most convincing and successful movement of the disc. The orchestra doesn’t sound very large and they don’t make an especially big or opulent sound but they are more than just neat and tidy. The recorded sound tends to be rather shallow and slightly one-dimensional but the rarity and scarcity of this repertoire will certainly tempt intrepid souls. I understand there’s a highly regarded 1905 Violin Sonata by her. Any takers?

Jonathan Woolf   




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