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?