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Otto OLSSON (1879-1964)
Symphony in G minor, Op.11 (1901/02) [57:20]
Gävleborg Symphony Orchestra/Mats Liljefors
rec. 1996, Ljusgården, Polhemsskolan, Gävle, Sweden
World Premiere Recording
STERLING CDS1020-2 [57:20]

What a find! Until this summer I’d never heard of Otto Olsson. Then a friend played me the Adagio of this four-movement Symphony and I was hooked. The slow movement lasts for just over 23 minutes, which may seem lengthy, but such is the captivating quality of the music I didn’t want it to end. I’m pleased to have the opportunity now to review Olsson’s one and only symphony and, hopefully, spread the good news.

The composer is mainly remembered for his choral and organ music. Indeed, still to this day on the First Sunday of Advent his choral piece ‘Advent’ is sung in Swedish churches, and his Six Latin Hymns remain a firm favorite with native choirs. His organ works are frequently programmed by Sweden’s organists. Olsson was a renowned concert organist, and held a post at the Gustaf Vasa Church in Stockholm. He also taught harmony and organ performance at the Royal Conservatory in the city for a number of years. As a composer, he was versatile, and his works also include a Requiem, Te Deum and three string quartets.

The Symphony in G minor was Olsson’s first orchestral work and, regrettably, his only symphony. You’d never guess by the quality, but it’s a student work, penned when he was only 23, between 1901-1902. I’ve read that he was interviewed late on in life and had apparently forgotten about it. It was discovered in a drawer after his death. Although the first movement was performed in a student concert in 1902, it languished in obscurity for 77 years until it was broadcast on radio by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra directed by Stig Westerberg in 1979. This is the world premiere recording from May 1996. Olsson’s music is steeped in late Romanticism. It’s firmly tonal, yet gilded with lush harmonic richness. The Symphony reveals a skillful young hand at orchestration and counterpoint.

Three declamatory chords usher in the opening movement. A gentle, rolling theme unfolds, and Ollson’s melodic gifts are there for all to hear. As far as influences are concerned, I hear fleeting glimpses of Mendelssohn in the movement’s youthful freshness. The Scherzo, which follows, is lithe and nimble, with fugal elements thrown in for good measure.

As a lover of Bruckner slow movements, Olsson’s broad, spacious and romantic Adagio is a revelation. You can just sit back and let the lyrical outpourings bathe you. Having returned to it many times, each occasion leaves me wishing that it would never end. Here, it’s elegantly managed and ravishingly played. The Presto finale begins with a busy fugue on the strings. Other instrumental sections join the fray, including a captivating bassoon solo. Later the brass enter with a more martial theme. Everything is effervescent and upbeat. At the end, Olsson signs off with a jubilant coda.

The Gävleborg Symphony Orchestra under Mats Liljefors give a convincing performance. Why Olsson never made a return visit to the symphonic genre we’ll never know. Yet, one thing’s for certain, this is a work that deserves a wider currency. It’s been my best discovery this year – sheer luxury from beginning to end.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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