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Helena MUNKTELL (1852-1919)
Violin Sonata in E flat major, Op 21 (1905) [29:57]
Dix Mélodies for voice and piano [27:01]
Kleines Trio, for piano, violin and cello [9:05]
Scherzo brusco (original version) from the Violin Sonata Op 21 [6:05]
Tobias Ringborg (violin), Peter Friis Johansson (piano), Sofie Asplund (soprano), Kristina Winiarski (cello)
rec. 2019, Giresta kyrka, Örsundsbro, Sweden
Texts and translations included
BIS BIS-2204 SACD [73:37]

The recent, better-late-than-never re-emergence of a startling number of accomplished female composers from centuries past has surely put to bed the indolent stereotype of male superiority in this field. Let me be clear; I am not suddenly adopting a stance which certain media commentators (and the odd right-leaning politician) might describe in the parlance of the day as ‘virtue signalling’. As a matter of fact I have long felt deeply uncomfortable about the debilitating resilience of patriarchal attitudes and systems which have persisted in the realm of classical music. Dare one hope that the day is nigh when they might crumble for good? To date there is little to suggest that posterity has overlooked a female Beethoven or Bach, but suspicions that the stature of many fine women composers has been deliberately diminished to the advantage of inferior men continue to abound. Nor should one always have to mention Clara Schumann or Fanny Mendelssohn (two figures whose reputations until recently were defined exclusively by their surnames) in this context; frankly give me the music of Louise Farrenc or Marie Jaëll any day rather than that of Heinrich von Herzogenberg or Théodore Dubois. Closer to home the adventurous, relatively experimental music of the likes of Rebecca Clarke or Elizabeth Maconchy always had to compete on a far from level playing field against the oeuvres of a large number of far less talented male contemporaries - readers can devise their own lists if they wish…

Two Swedish examples of women who have ‘come in from the cold’ are Amanda Maier and her contemporary, Helena Munktell. It is interesting to note that both women made their names in continental Europe, Maier in Amsterdam (after she had married the arch-symphonist Julius Röntgen) and Munktell in Paris. Whilst there has been a spate of recent recordings devoted to Maier, (mostly on the dB label – I think that the surviving movement of her Violin Concerto is especially fine) this enchanting SACD from BIS is only the second recording of Munktell’s oeuvre – its predecessor on Sterling included four lush examples of her immensely agreeable (and in the case of the Dala Suite, memorable) orchestral music and was originally issued back in 2005 (review).

The Dix Mélodies were published by Leduc as a set in 1900 but in her booklet note Christina Tobeck suggests they were written and performed as individual numbers over the previous decade or possibly longer. Two of the songs set original French texts by Amédée-Landély Hettich, a poet and singing coach who was a member of Munktell’s Parisian coterie. Hettich also translated the seven poems by Swedish writers in the sequence that the composer had already set. Armand Silvestre’s French text for the fifth song Cantilčne already existed - Daniel Fallström incorporated the original words into his libretto for Munktell’s comic opera I Firenze. Fallström also wrote the original texts for the first two songs; Sérénade is serene and memorable, with a delightfully graceful vocal line, whilst Dans le lointain des bois is more austere and mysterious. One detects the influences of Faure, Duparc and even Chabrier (in Ce qu’entendent les nuits for example, a scurrying paean to nocturnal promise) throughout the cycle. Among the slower numbers D’un berceau and Exil d’amour are stand-outs and display the qualities of Sofie Asplund’s bright, silken voice to its best advantage, although she demostrates impressive agility and unfettered confidence throughout the cycle. This young soprano reveals abundant sensitivity to the texts themselves whilst Peter Friis Johansen’s steadfast accompaniment is tactful and discreet, nuanced and assertive as appropriate. On this showing whilst the French influence on Munktell’s art is obvious, her style is neither derivative nor obvious. Each of the songs inhabits its own world yet together the ten numbers comprise a convincing sequence.
Munktell’s substantial Violin Sonata dates from 1905 and marks a stylistic advance. It certainly leaps out of the speakers. As Christina Tobeck confirms, Franck’s great Sonata in A may be the obvious template, but Munktell’s conception implies a fully absorbed influence rather than a slavish imitation. Its four movements are perfectly proportioned and the sonata is generally sunny in disposition. It was premiered in 1905 by no less a figure than Georges Enescu at a gig organised by the prestigious Parisian Société Nationale de Musique. The Franckian influence is there in the open-hearted initial theme and the impassioned development of the opening Allegro non tanto. The second subject is reflective rather than melancholy and there’s plenty of sophisticated (rather Faurean) harmonic progression to be enjoyed in the fiery piano accompaniment. The second movement is described as a Scherzo Brusco, although the subsidiary marking Moderato Energico is a better reflection of a tuneful panel nudged along by lively sprung rhythms and varied with deft touches of tangy pizzicato. Munktell made a cut of 58 bars from the original in the version that was published; BIS helpfully offer the uncut version as an appendix to this disc. The slow movement projects quiet nostalgia rather than any sense of heartbreak – there’s a sense of emotional control (a touch of Scandinavian aloofness?) at play here which really suits this luminous music. Its closing pages prove to be unexpectedly touching however. The closing Allegro con brio oscillates between vernal optimism and affirmative action but still finds room for slower moments which are both ruminative and rapt. Violinist Tobias Ringborg proves to be technically assured and is an enthusiastic advocate for this fine work; he obviously holds a torch for Helena Munktell’s music – it was he who conducted the orchestral disc I mentioned earlier. Peter Friis Johansen is every inch the collaborator (rather than just the accompanist) in this elegantly made work. The BIS recording of both big works is clean and truthful.

Ringborg and Johansen are joined by cellist Kristina Winiarski for the Kleines Trio. Cristina Tobeck speculates that this is an early work; the French influence is certainly conspicuous by its absence which suggests it was probably written in Stockholm before Munktell embarked upon her Gallic adventures. The trio may be small in scale but compensates with its confident, melodic sweep which seems to owe something to Dvorak, most notably in the punchy finale.

The playing (and singing) on this rewarding issue is an absolute delight from first note to last. It’s blessed with the usual de-luxe BIS sound, recorded in what seems to be the ideal ambience of the Giresta kirka at Örsundsbro in Uppsala county the south-east of Sweden (it looks like an idyllic location from the image on the sleeve). For those who enjoy such things, the surround option emerges as vivid and impressively detailed, but this is chamber music and hearing it bouncing around the room still seems oddly synthetic for me – unlike BIS’s audiophile standard orchestral surround discs. Besides, the superb stereo (through my spanking new Dali speakers) is absolutely ideal for this music. This is a lovely disc, tastefully packaged, and it merits the widest currency.

Richard Hanlon

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