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Ole OLSEN (1850-1927)
Asgaardsreien, symphonic tone picture, Op. 10 [11.16]
Symphony in G major , Op. 5 [39:49]
Suite for String Orchestra Op.60 (From Nordahl-Rolfsen’s fairy-tale comedy Svein Urd) [16:05]
Latvian National Symphony Orchestra/Terje Mikkelsen
rec. Reforma Basilika, Riga, Latvia, June 2009
STERLING CDS1086-2 [68.31]

If you like Grieg, you will love this.

A gifted musician, Olsen was seven years younger than Grieg, and survived him by twenty years. He was born in Hammerfest, in the far north of Norway. Little is left of the original town. When the Germans left in February 1945, the town was burned to the ground, with only the Hauen Chapel – a funeral chapel – left standing. But the town has a monument to Olsen. He was a gifted child musician, of modest background, and trained as a clockmaker before devoting himself to music. He was an accomplished conductor, organist, pianist and violinist, which perhaps restricted his opportunities as a composer. He studied at the Leipzig Conservatory (where he wrote the Symphony on the present disc) and, after his return to Norway, became friendly with Grieg, though the latter was evidently rather sniffy about Olsen’s music.

The idiom is Romantic, rather conservative, though willing to develop beyond strict adherence to strict sonata form into looser development, but with a distinct Nordic flavour. The movement ‘Dwarves and Elves’ from the Suite for String Orchestra foreshadows the idiom of Alfvn’s late work, The Prodigal Son. But the Nordic tone, the sense of connection to folk music and the national character, are evident in each piece.

Asgaardsreien, the tone poem, is one of Olsen’s best-known works. One can immediately hear why. The theme is a representation of mythic beings, led by Thor, riding the heavens. The piece is episodic, based on a poem by Johann Sebastian Welhaven. As performed here, it is genuinely exciting and enjoyable.

The major work is the Symphony, premiered in 1878. From the beginning, there is a simplicity to the four-note main theme: the ear finds it straightforward to follow the development, but there is so much to enjoy in the ways in which ideas are developed. One is aware throughout of Olsen’s fluency and appeal. If the music seems to hover somewhere between Svendsen and Grieg, it is none the worse for that. This symphony adds little to our knowledge of symphonic development in the nineteenth century, but it can stand beside many others, more frequently performed, and is certainly worth forty minutes of anyone’s time. There is much also to enjoy in the Suite, in music which is varied and charming.

Performances by the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra have just the right care and commitment needed for fine music, a notch below the very best. Terje Mikkelsen has the music’s measure and a keen ear for orchestral detail and the longer lines of the melodies.

These world premiere recordings (there is also a BIS recording from 2011 - review) add to our knowledge of Nordic music while giving immense pleasure.

Michael Wilkinson
Previous review: Rob Barnett 



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