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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

 

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Otto OLSSON (1879–1964)
Requiem Op. 13 (1901–1903)
Sylvia Lindenstrand (soprano); Inger Blom (alto); Björn Haugan (tenor); Olle Sköld (bass)
Gustaf Vasa Oratorio Choir
Royal Opera Orchestra/Anders Ohlson
rec. 16 May 1993, Gustaf Vasa Church, Stockholm
PROPRIUS PRSACD 9086 [67:44]

 

Otto Olsson held the post as organist at Gustaf Vasa Church in central Stockholm from 1907 to 1956, a record in itself. He also taught at the Stockholm Conservatory of Music for well-nigh forty years. His oeuvre as a composer comprises mainly choral and organ music. To Swedes in general he is known first and foremost for Advent, a little composition for choir and organ that is sung all over the country on the first Sunday in Advent, His Te Deum (1910) for chorus and orchestra was performed more than a hundred times during his lifetime and is still heard. This work, possibly together with his second organ symphony Credo Symphoniacum (1918), can be counted as his greatest achievements. Most of his compositions are from his relative youth; after 1918 he produced very little, although there is among other things a String Quartet from 1948. Also he had been working on an oratorio for many years since the First World War, but it was still uncompleted at his death.

Stylistically he was influenced by the French late romantics. Franck, Widor and Vierne are mentioned in the booklet notes but the inspiration for his Requiem might well have come from performances of Brahms’ and Verdi’s works, which were both performed in Stockholm just after the turn of the 19th century. The inwardness of much of Brahms’ music can be heard in the first and last movements of this composition and the long Sanctus, powerful and dramatic with timpani and trumpets. There may be a nod or two to Verdi, but he is much lighter and more positive than the former and less operatically outgoing and “flashy” than the latter. In fact he is closer to Fauré in mood, although not in actual style. Otto Olsson was a master of counterpoint, which can be heard in many places in this composition, not least in the Hosanna that concludes the Sanctus movement.

Nothing seems to be known about the actual reason for writing this Requiem, but Olsson’s father passed away in November, 1900 and he started work on the Requiem late 1901. He held this composition in high esteem but he never managed to get it performed. Not until 1976, 73 years after the completion, was it finally premiered, during the 75th anniversary of the Church Musicians Society in Stockholm. It caused something of a sensation when it belatedly came to notice. Hearing it now in this committed performance, recorded in the church where Olsson spent almost half a century in the organ loft, I must say that it is a very gripping work, impressively so, considering he was only 23 when he wrote it. Actually I can’t recall another large-scale Swedish choral work from the same period that has impressed me so much, unless it be Hugo Alfvén’s The Lord’s Prayer, completed barely two years before Olsson’s Requiem.

It starts softly, almost mysteriously, with timpani accompanying the choir in the Requiem aeternam. The Kyrie eleison is also slow-moving and restrained. Then follows Dies irae with the full orchestra and the chorus – a first dramatic climax. Rex tremendae features the bass soloist Olle Sköld, who sounds more baritonal than I remember him from numerous live occasions. The fifth movement, Recordare, is again contemplative, as a preparation for the almost furious Confutatis – a dramatic high-point! In the seventh movement the men sing Domine Jesu and then the women take over at Libera animas. The soprano and alto soloists are then heard, partly in duet, in the beautiful Hostias. All of these movements are fairly short, but then comes what to Otto Olsson is obviously the main focus of the composition, a fourteen-minute-long Sanctus, divided into three sections: first the dramatic and jubilant Sanctus, complete with timpani and abrasive trumpets. Then follows Benedictus, soft and mild, featuring the four soloists and then Hosanna, a choral fugue, short but exciting. In the final movement, Agnus Dei, we return to the mysticism of the first movement, but more elaborated. It is a beautiful movement – Otto Olsson was a great melodist – and towards the end there is a magical Lux aeterna with a prominent harp part that gradually fades away.

The Gustav Vasa Oratorio Choir was founded in 1988 by Anders Ohlson. By the time it came to make this recording in 1993 the choir had performed many of the great choral classics. It is a fine body of singers, amateurs of course, as are all Swedish church choirs, but with the general high standard of choral singing in Sweden they are well up to the challenge, singing with great conviction and necessary power for the big outbursts. The Royal Opera Orchestra, reputedly one of the oldest orchestras in the world, actually founded on the initiative of King Gustavus I, (“Gustaf Vasa”) during the 16th century, play well. With four of the best Swedish opera and concert singers of the day the solo parts are beautifully and dramatically executed.

Don’t expect Verdian exuberance, even though Dies irae, Confutatis and Sanctus are powerful enough, but don’t expect too much Brahmsian brooding either. This is music of a young man with a positive view of life and this is mirrored by the lightness and melodious quality of much of this Requiem.

Proprius have for many years been one of the world leaders in organ and choral recording. With Bertil Gripe at the controls one can rest assured that there is space and clarity, further enhanced by this hybrid SACD issue. Curt Carlsson and Erik Lundkvist - the latter one of Otto Olsson’s successors as organist of the Gustaf Vasa Church - have written the informative booklet text. We also get the sung texts (in latin only) but unfortunately printed in white on a dark background. When will they ever learn?

This is the only existing recording of this work and will presumably remain so for the foreseeable future, which also means that this is a “best buy”*. This music is definitely worth closer acquaintance.

Göran Forsling

* we have subsequently discovered that there is another recording on Caprice CAP21368 conducted by Anders Ohrwall and has a similarly fine line-up of soloists. AmazonUK  

 

 

 



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