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A Worthwhile Composer Virtually Unknown Outside SwedenMay 2 2009
J Scott Morrison
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
The name Henning Mankell may ring a distant bell for some for it is the name of a contemporary Swedish writer whose mystery novels featuring Inspector Kurt Wallander have been translated into many languages and have a worldwide readership. But the composer Henning Mankell (1868-1930) is the writer's grandfather. And he is mostly unknown outside Sweden. He grew up in an intensely musical family and spent most of his life teaching piano and harmony as well as writing music criticism for two of the major Swedish newspapers. Late in life he had a burst of compositional activity and the works on these two discs are from the last few years of his life.
As a composer Mankell was mostly self-taught. The vast majority of his compositions are for piano. His use of harmony is idiosyncratic -- always completely tonal, but growing out of the trends of late romanticism, impressionism and even early jazz. One hears echoes of Debussy and Scriabin and even occasional hints of the jazz harmonies of the likes of Gershwin. His ability to obtain striking sonorities from the piano is most like that of Debussy, but he was a romantic at heart and one senses formal borrowings from the likes of Chopin and Liszt. For instance, on the second of these two discs there are three Sonatas, called Fantasy-Sonatas, that are in one movement and have thematic and formal reminiscences of the great B Minor Sonata of Liszt. Consider then a combination of Debussyan/Scriabinesque harmonies and sonorities coupled with the free-ranging fantasy forms of Liszt; this is a vague but perhaps helpful description of the effect of these latter works.
The first disc contains eleven characteristic pieces with titles like 'Valse mesto', 'Waves', 'Summer', 'Atlantis', 'Evening Mood', 'Tempest Mood', 'Barcarole' and the like. 'Valse mesto' is particularly striking in that it sounds like it could have been one of Satie's Gymnopédies. Most of the works here are quiet, contemplative, and evocative of the scenes or moods implied in their titles. 'Tempest Mood' is the only one on that first disc that rises to any degree of agitation or turmoil.
Swedish pianist Anna Christensson was previously unknown to me but she is a sensitive artist whose technique easily conquers any difficulties in this music and whose sensibility seems suited to its style. She plays a beautifully regulated piano whose recorded sound is sumptuous. I had no idea what to expect from these discs, but found myself almost hypnotized by their evocativeness.
These discs deserve a recommendation for those who are modestly adventuresome about hearing not-well-known piano music from the early twentieth century.