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Ole OLSEN (1850-1927)
Asgaardsreien - Symphonic Tone-picture op.10 (1878) [11:16]
Symphony in G op.5 (1878) [39:43]
Suite for string orchestra, Op.60 (1890) [17:15]
Latvian National Symphony Orchestra/Terje Mikkelsen
rec. Reforma Baznika Riga, Latvia, 28-29 July 2009
Reviewed in CD stereo
STERLING CDS1086-2 SACD [68:31]

Unlike Rob Barnett in his earlier review of this delightful disc, I’ve not heard the competition on BIS which shares the Symphony and Asgaardsreien. RB was swayed in favour of this disc by virtue of the recording quality and the inclusion of Olsen’s Suite, Op.60 and I am happy to say that I found this Sterling release splendid in every way.

Having begun with my conclusion, it’s time to wind back a little. The “symphonic tone picture” Asgaardsreien was composed in 1878 and its nomenclature might raise a few eyebrows. Is it a sonata form tone poem, or a tone-picture, or indeed a symphonic poem? Well, as Beecham once said: “Take your pick, gentlemen.” It really doesn’t matter as there is much of interest to savour, from a second subject full of rustic wedding themes presaging a rather militant brass outburst to the arrival of “the beserkers of Seim”, mythic brothers of decidedly warlike ways. There’s Hardanger evocation as well as a noble quotation of Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott. So, from Halling to chorale this spiky, folkloric opus covers quite some ground, if not always wholly coherently.

Composed in the same year, the Symphony in G major is cast in four conventional movements. It opens with confident geniality, cannily recycling and putting to good structural use motifs and their variants, and not least key changes – Olsen is adept at utilizing the key change. The scherzo is in four episodes with a minuscule trio. The material here is less overtly interesting than the opening movement but it is very well crafted. The slow movement carries with it the whiff of the oriental though the predominant influence to emerge is that of Grieg, and slightly less so, Svendsen, the lissome warmth of the music’s burgeoning lyricism being especially delightful. It ends with quiet nobility. The slow introduction to the finale is followed by lightly burnished Wagnerisms before a carnival-like Allegro bursts in, high-spirited but never too rumbustious. Olsen reserves an element of delicacy, even here.

The Symphony makes a good start to Olsen-listening but so too does the 1890 Suite for string orchestra. Grieg-like archaisms and richly atmospheric orchestration mark out this work, coupled with a rather intriguing capacity for ingenious sonorities – try the second movement called Northern Lights and Ice Field for truly atmospheric nature painting. I wouldn’t go as far as the note writer in claiming that Among the Gypsies, the fifth panel, anticipates Bartók but the final movement is an orchestrated version of his best-known song, Sunset, and delightful it is too.

Recorded in fine sound back in Riga in 2009 this disc finds orchestra and conductor on engaged and sensitive form. Together they make a fine showcase for these three individual, enjoyable works.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous reviews: Rob Barnett ~ Michael Wilkinson


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