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Poul Rovsing OLSEN (1922-82)
A Dream in Violet, Op. 85 for string trio (1982) [16:02]
The Planets, Op. 80 for mezzo-soprano, flute, viola and guitar (1978) [20:23]
Rencontres, Op. 67 for percussion and cello (1970) [9:47]
Pour une viole d'amour, Op. 66 for viola d’amore (1969) [9:06]
Alapa-Tarana, Op. 41 for mezzo-soprano and percussion (1959) [9:57]
Helge Slaatto (violin)
Anette Slaatto (viola & viola d’amore)
Jonathan Slaatto (cello)
Ulla Miilmann (flute)
Frederik Munk Larsen (guitar)
Signe Asmussen (mezzo-soprano)
Christian Martinez (percussion)
rec 2017, Lerchenborg Castle, Kalundborg, Denmark
Texts and translations included
DACAPO 8.226128 [65:22]

Every so often Dacapo release a disc dedicated to the music of Poul Rovsing Olsen, whose untimely death in 1982 deprived Denmark of one of its most singular composers. There are few characteristically Nordic fingerprints in the works of his I have encountered to date; the crucial event in his development seems to have occurred in 1958 when he took part in an archaeological dig near the Persian Gulf, an experience which provided him with an initial opportunity to experience the music of the East first-hand. He had previously studied in Paris with Messiaen and Nadia Boulanger and during his time there conducted a great deal of ethnomusicological research. It is thus not surprising that all the works here, which broadly span the second half of Olsen’s career, combine a decidedly Gallic delicacy with an eastern-tinged exoticism.

The opening work on the disc was in fact Olsen’s swansong, and very fine it is too. The string trio A Dream in Violet has in fact been recorded before, by the Copenhagen String Trio on an old Danish Philips LP, but I have found no evidence to suggest that account has ever emerged on silver disc. It is an episodic work which fuses together a series of restrained, gently sensuous ideas in a single span of music that lasts about 16 minutes. The eight-tone scale upon which the musical material is based appears at the outset, and has something of a Ravelian cast. As the work proceeds Olsen proves his mastery of muted string effects, haunted tremolandi and, not least, some identifiably Oriental thematic material which stimulates both melodic and atmospheric development. A Dream in Violet is packed with rapt, intense ideas, some of which emerge almost spontaneously and with great clarity, others as if concealed by agitated, chaotic undergrowth. The long melody at the work’s centre has a clear, post-impressionistic sensibility, but as this Dream moves towards its conclusion it incorporates more folk-like material amid dance-tinged pizzicati. A hushed unison passage that swells and contracts into the note ‘A’ constitutes the works appropriately gnomic end. A Dream in Violet is given an intensely focused performance by Helge, Anette and Jonathan Slaatto. Dacapo’s sound is ideally warm, detailed and sympathetic. It is the best thing on this disc.

The Planets is a song cycle for mezzo-soprano, flute, viola and guitar. There are occasional, subtle washes of percussion, most notably tiny Indian antique cymbals. The work was written for the 50th anniversary of the discovery of a medieval block book in the library at Lerchenborg Castle. Contained therein were ornate coloured drawings of the major celestial bodies (at least those that were considered thus at the time – including the Sun and Moon) accompanied by Latin aphorisms detailing the character traits of babies born under each one. After an instrumental movement, ‘Aether’ which is dominated by gently strummed guitar and sustained flute notes the song dedicated to ‘Saturnus’ is appropriately puckish and mischievous, whilst ‘Iupiter’ features a vocal line which is whooping and lyrical by turn. The French influence is tangible throughout, but although the pieces are colourful and interesting in themselves, it’s difficult to distinguish unique characters that apply to each one. The most alluring songs are the longest, ‘Venus’ and ‘Luna’ are eerie and truly other-worldly. In the latter the voice is almost disembodied. It is also punctuated by Eastern shapes and fragile three-note patterns. At times Signe Asmussen’s voice seems slightly too forward in the mix.
The unambiguously titled Pour une Viole d’Amour is a fine solo work for that arcane instrument. Essentially a diptych of two equal parts, the first is flecked with ornate, orientally derived phrases with the sympathetic strings of the instrument enveloping them in weirdly rich garb. Some of its melodic shapes recall the Szymanowski of the first violin concerto. This is melancholy, yet intense music. The second part is swifter, with longer, angular passages juxtaposed with fragmented reflections on a single note. This part has a Bartokian tension, from which a yearning melody seems to escape about halfway through. It ends with what seems like an allusion to the Baroque. Anette Slaatto’s account is driven and richly communicative.

The most viscerally exciting piece in the collection is Rencontres (Meetings) for percussion and cello from 1970. The high cello and marimba duet which constitues the first encounter is rapid and frenetic. Tuned percussion, especially vibraphone, provide a kaleidoscopic contrast to the earthy and violent explosions of the drums. The central section is built around the subtle harmonics produced by the cellist’s insistent, repeated arco notes. Rencontres is propulsive, combative and exciting; it is rivetingly performed by Jonathan Slaatto and Christian Martinez.

Over the course of this disc we have been looking back from the standpoint of Olsen’s latest music to his earliest, and the final offering provides the most obvious example of the composer’s fascination with the East. This is Alapa-Tarana from 1959, a ten minute vocalise for mezzo-soprano and percussion. This piece is effectively an Indian raga of Olsen’s own invention and it begins with Signe Asmussen’s unaccompanied voice producing a quasi-improvised melodic line suffused with the swoops, sighs, bends and glissandi associated with Indian music. Asmussen projects its charms with complete empathy for the unusual shape of the piece. Tabla-like drumming is introduced at 3:46 and effectively allows the voice more freedom, providing a rhythmic backdrop for material which resembles vocal extemporisation. Gongs and bell-like sounds (antique cymbals) provide subtle coloration, while the whiff of dance and sinuous movement is never far from the surface. The percussion figures increase in complexity as the work heads toward its reflective conclusion. Alapa-Tarana is compelling and hypnotic.

While the five pieces on this survey involve unique combinations of instruments both with and without voice they are all recognisably products from the same hand. Olsen conjures up an array of beguiling colours in the miniatures that constitute The Planets and in the three works for one or two players, but it is the extended form of his final work for string trio which made the strongest impression upon this listener.
Richard Hanlon

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