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
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
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?
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
* 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