, November 2009
Henning Mankell (1868–1930) is a Swedish composer of some local repute who established himself in Stockholm as a teacher of harmony and piano. The works selected for this program derive from his late period of work, 1922–1930, and reveal harmonic ties with Chopin, Liszt, Berg, Schumann, Scriabin, and Nielsen. The first Prelude from Op. 56, “Waves,” seems lifted from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. “Summer” and “Nenia” offer bouquets to Chopin and Grieg without many ruffles of anyone’s feathers. The Valse mesto adds a touch of a Satie Gnossienne to the otherwise nocturnal mix, a hint of irony beneath the serene surface that waxes into hints of Debussy as well.
The Three Legends opens with an untitled piece that derives from an admixture of Debussy and Scriabin, almost Pour le Piano or Pagodes of the former and the Op. 28 Fantasy-Sonata of the latter. The piece proceeds to a water-etude or aquarelle, shimmering in pentatonic scales. In its more declamatory sections, the model might be Chopin’s F Minor Ballade. “Atlantis” owes debts to another city beneath the sea, depicted by Debussy’s The Sunken Cathedral. A series of sustained, throbbing chords hints at submerged intimacies. Do I detect a vague outline from the Dies Irae, maybe a hint of Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead? Soeur Beatrice, if I recall, the third Legend, made a subject for an opera by Dimitri Mitropoulos. A plainchant theme evolves rather modally, the askew harmonies redolent of Berg and ecstatic Liszt, as in his St Francis Legends. A lengthy piece, the assorted clamors and assertions do not always hold our attention with equal charisma, especially in the cloned-Scriabin episodes, where the influence of the Fifth Sonata seems manifeSt
A Barcarolle begins the set of Op. 60 Four Pieces. Rather jazzy and modal, it sounds lifted from the Prokofiev Seventh Sonata, just gentler. The liquid runs follow Faure but move in their own harmonic world. The more exotic or “Spanish” expressions take their cue from Albeniz or perhaps Chabrier, since irony constitutes an aspect of Mankell’s personality. “Evening Mood,” “Tempest Mood,” and Slow Waves” inherit their characteristic ethos from Grieg or Nielsen, cross-fertilized by the repeated notes and smeared harmonies of French Impressionism. The erotic ripples that repeat in Slow Waves look to the Chopin B Minor Sonata third movement here in modal harmony.
The Fantasy-Sonata No. 1 might be construed as music by Medtner, cross-bred by a fair share of Debussy preludes, especially as the scale of the one-movement work becomes grand and inflamed, clearly an offshoot of the Scriabin “illumined” ethos. Tremolos, rippling chords, liquid runs, and chromatic agitation characterize the writing, rather romantic throughout its mercurial impulses. The slow section reminds one of the more dreamy episodes in the cadenza from Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto. Fantasy-Sonata No. 3 opens with skittish jazzy riffs whose harmony closely resembles that of Ravel, but more declamatory or modally sweet. Like No. 1, the piece is highly sectionalized; and whether we can or wish to follow the internal logic becomes a matter of taste. That the slow passages resemble “modern” Chopin there is little doubt. The strings of carillon patterns add a pearly, translucent patina to the mix; midway, a tenderly modal song arises, part Fauré, part Rachmaninov, part allusions to Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy, which bring the piece to an insistent conclusion. The Fantasy-Sonata No. 6 begins more like a somber ballade, once again rife with Scriabin’s agitatos. More Debussy, but now highly syncopated and dissolving into quasi-parlando meditations of some interior drama. The triplets mount to a climax, dissipate, and leave us with a somber mood—the final bars of the Liszt B Minor Sonata?—from a composer who has remained elusive in his stylistic allusions.
The last piece in the recital is a large Ballad No. 7, mounted on the same scale as the Grieg monument, Op. 24. Somewhere behind the now-familiar mirrors of Chopin, Scriabin, and Liszt, there hides a strongly fixed personality, but he cannot often be separated from those tonal masters he too much admires.
Pianist Anna Christenson (b. 1982) plays all these pieces devoutly, the recording (29 May–3 December 2008), showing her command of Mankell’s eclectic idiom natural and polychromatic.