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Swedish Miniatures
Bengt Forsberg (piano)
rec. April 3, 2019 in the Kulturhuset i Ytterjärna, Järna, Sweden

In our modern age of hefty recital CDs dripping with sonatas, it is a pleasure to come across a full disc of “miniatures,” especially when those miniatures are played by an excellent pianist like Bengt Forsberg.

There are only a handful of Swedish classical composers who approach the status of “household names”; Franz Berwald, Wilhelm Stenhammer, and Hugo Alfvén are perhaps the best-known, but their works do not appear here. Of all the composers present, the only two I had heard of were the Aulin siblings. Tor Aulin’s delightful Impromptu for violin and piano was recorded for Columbia by Efrem Zimbalist in 1928. Given the unfamiliarity of the composers in questions, it stands to reason that every work other than Erik Nilsson’s Fragments is a world premiere recording.

The Mankell and Wennerberg-Reuter pieces are pleasant without being compelling. Like many “miniatures” of their period, they pose no technical difficulty to the performer or listener. They are musically indistinguishable from the thousands of salon works composed by minor composers in Sweden or elsewhere. The last of the Mankell Miniatures does recall the brooding soundworld of the French composer Gabriel Dupont, but it lacks that composer’s varied use of textures.

Fryklöf’s Impromptu immediately brings the piano works of Gabriel Fauré. The harmonies and modulations between keys sound like the work of the French master, as does Fryklöfs use of the piano, aping the keyboard writing found in Fauré’s barcarolles and impromptus. The booklet notes cite a similarity between Fryklöf’s violin sonata and that of César Franck. All that said, Fryklöf studied in Berlin, and had no apparent connection to Fauré or Franck! The impromptu is a well-constructed piece, one that should be taken up by good amateur pianists interested in the late-Romantic salon style.

Tegnér’s “Étude romantique” is a short study in double-thirds. An identical score exists in her hand (found on alternately titled “Étude (à la Chopin).” Although the presence of double-thirds might suggest a virtuoso etude, the piece is fairly simple, to be played at a relaxed tempo with “un poco rubato” noted at the head of the score. Musically-speaking, it is unremarkable.

Although the booklet notes cites “rather sharp dissonances” in Tor Aulin’s three album leaves, the overall effect is rather tame. I found the three pieces to be dull in comparison to the Impromptu recorded by Zimbalist nearly a century ago. The Elégie by his older sister Valborg Aulin is of more interest; although there is evidence of dueling Chopin and Grieg influences at work, Madame Aulin’s elegy manages to find poignant utterance in a succinct musical frame. Readers interested in exploring more of this talented woman’s music should seek out her Grande Sonata Sérieuse; the pompous title belies the attractive music.

I had high hopes for Johan Algot Haquinius’s piece, the title of which is translated in the booklet as “The Lonely Skerry.” (“Skerry” is the Scottish term for a reef or rocky island.”) Haquinius studied piano with Moritz Moszowski and Ignaz Friedman, both of whom were experts at the miniature genre. Unfortunately, the three-minute piece wanders through a heavily chromatic landscape with no audible harmonic goal in mind, and by the end, one longs for the comparatively structured worlds of Mankell or Wennerberg-Reuter.

The seven short pieces by Dorcas Norre entitled Profiles are for me the highlight of the album. Forsberg compares her writing to that of Prokofiev in his Visions fugitives; there seems to me to also be a bit of the sly humor of Poulenc in her music. The pieces are short (the longest is 1:43) and rhythmically varied. Although these pieces were written in 1961--the height of academic serialism--Norre seems to have ignored those modernist currents, embracing tonality (albeit a somewhat spiky tonality) without shame. This performance appears to be the only extant recording of her music. Hopefully Forsberg can be convinced to record more of Norre’s music, assuming there is more to record.

The pieces written by living composers are fairly conservative in nature. None of them will be a hurdle for listeners unused to more recent compositions. Although Forsberg writes that Nilsson’s Fragments is a send-up of contemporary music, it’s an atmospheric little piece that makes me want to hear more of his compositions. Borisova-Ollas’s Angelfield is based on a modern gothic novel set at a haunted estate in the English countryside. One would never guess that based on the spritely nature of the music. Fredrik Hagsted’s two pieces are aphoristic neo-Romantic miniatures that say a great deal in a short amount of time. Ylva Fred’s Svaga nerver (“Weak nerves”) is reminiscent of jazz without ever sounded truly “jazzy.” There’s a slight swing to piece (a walking bass provides the rhythmic framework), and the mood is light. Jansson’s piece Dagsnotering no. 2 sounds like written-out piano version of easy listening of the mid-20th century variety (think Jackie Gleason’s Music for Lovers Only).

Forsberg has curated a lovely album. He plays with his usual beauty of tone and intelligent musical expression. Hopefully we will hear more of Dorcas Norre from dB Productions, as well as perhaps more Valborg Aulin.

Richard Masters

Henning MANKELL (1868-1930)
Five Miniatures, op. 52 [8:41]
Sara WENNERBERG-REUTER (1875-1959)
Angelus [2:41]
Harald FRYKLÖF (1882-1919)
Impromptu in A Major [3:14]
Alice TEGNÉR (1864-1943)
Etude romantique in F-Sharp Major [2:53]
Tor AULIN (1866-1914)
Three Albumsblade, op. 5 [8:49]
Valborg AULIN (1860-1928)
Elégie (no. 3 from Seven Pieces for Piano, Op. 8) [2:54]
Johan Algot HAQUINIUS (1886-1966)
Det ensamma skaret [2:40]
Dorcas NORRE (1911-1985)
Profiles [8:13]
Erik NILSSON (b. 1935)
Fragments [1:58]
Victoria BORISOVA-OLLAS (b. 1969)
Angelfield [1:53]
Fredrik HAGSTEDT (b. 1975)
No. 5 (from Miniatures) [1:21]
Piece no. 24 (from 42 Pieces for Piano) [3:51]
Ylva FRED (b. 1990)
Svaga nerver [2:52]
Gunnar JANSSON (b. 1944)
Dagsnotering No. 2 [1:22]

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