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Olsen: Asgaardsreien, Symphony in G, Suite - Mikkelsen

Olsen: Asgaardsreien, Symphony in G, Suite - Mikkelsen

Sterling  CDS 1086-2

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Ole Olsen: Asgaardsreien Op. 10, Symphony in G Op. 5, Suite for string orchestra Op. 60

Latvian National Symphony Orchestra
Terje Mikkelsen (conductor)

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Review by John Miller - January 2, 2010

A second instalment of première recordings of Norwegian Romantic music to complement Alnæs: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 - Mikkelsen.

Ole Olsen (1850-1927) was born in Hammerfest well north of the Arctic Circle in Norway and might lay claim to being the world's most northern composer. This apart, his career path interestingly developed on parallel lines to that of his near-contemporary Eyvind Alnæs; Olsen also came from a musical family and too was quite a child prodigy, composing at age 5. He also took organ lessons, but after a move south to Tromsø at the tender age of 10. In 1865 he moved yet further south, to the west coast cathedral city of Trondheim, where he trained as a clockmaker but gave this up after two years to concentrate on composition. At this point he became interested in the theatre, the fruits of which are evident on this disc in the form of the Suite for String Orchestra. Like Alnæs, he spent some time in the Leipzig Conservatory, returning to Norway in 1874, first to Tromsø then finally to Kristiania (now Oslo). Here he was mentored for a while by Grieg, who gave him advice and some often harsh and bad-tempered criticism.

The first work on the disc illustrates one of the most important developments of the Late Romantic Movement, that of Nationalism. Norwegians are immensely proud of their rich heritage of myths and sagas; they invite musical settings in the form of tone poems or symphonic poems such as Asgaardsreien (Asgaard's Ride), Op. 10. Olsen based his on a well-known poem, following its plot closely. The Ride is a muscular and vigorous piece, vividly orchestrated so that the jingle of bridles and hunting sounds are almost palpable. Energy subsides temporarily for quieter episodes, such as a jolly village wedding. This is an invigorating piece of fun and a real outing for the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, who really let themselves go with great panache.

Olsen's Symphony in G Major, Op. 5 was some time in preparation, but was finally performed in1878. Its first movement is distinguished by a great economy of means; the first subject consists of a mere 4 notes, the second subject of 5 notes. Its indication of Allegro maestoso is curiously misleading, as the music is gently playful, almost scherzo-like, and its overall impact relies on Olsen's gift of inventive transformations and colourful orchestration. The wind band is particularly engaged here, and the LNSO wind players respond magnificently. A true Scherzo forms the second movement, which owes much to Svendsen's First Symphony, and some of the rustic elements, again gainfully employing the winds, is reminiscent of mature Dvorak. The Andante is an intriguing movement, exotic sounding from the start, seeming to hail from the Arabian Nights, with elements of Grieg's Solveig's Song. The fourth movement introduces itself misleadingly with a voluptuous adagio for strings with much Wagnerian chromaticism, which is swept away for a playful fast remainder, demonstrating further Olsen's ingenuity in developing simple material. I did, however, feel that this movement rather overplayed itself, being more loquacious than eloquent.

As mentioned above, Olsen was involved in the great Scandinavian tradition of providing high-quality musical interludes for plays. The Suite for String Orchestra, Op. 60 consists of 7 movements taken from the incidental music for Nordahl-Rolfsen's fairy-tale comedy Svein Uræd. This ranks along with some of Sibelius' incidental music, particularly in No.2, Northern Lights and Ice Field, where a dark tune in the bass is illuminated with shimmering trochaic upper string phrases. Only No. 1 rather stands out as almost being a direct borrowing of the Greig Solvieg Song. This is a magical collection of vignettes with some lovely melodies, beautifully drawn and coloured by the LNSO strings.

Under the sympathetic and enthusiastic direction of Terje Mikkelsen, the orchestral playing is glowingly rendered, and exceptionally fine engineering in the resonant acoustic of Reforma Baznika in Riga gives a wide sound stage in stereo, opening up in 5.1 multichannel to a superbly focussed orchestral perspective of considerable depth with thrilling climaxes and display of orchestral colour. The excellent notes give detailed analyses of all the music and a thorough contextual biography. A reproduction of Peter Nikolai Arbo's impressive oil painting of Aasgaard's Ride is a perfect match to the music of the same name.

It is fascinating to have this body of neglected Romantic music; it not only provides a rich context for enjoyment of more famous composers, but also amplifies their achievement. Olsen may never be a household name, but his music is well worth hearing, especially in such realistic sound and with performances which could hardly be bettered. Enthusiastically recommended.

Copyright © 2010 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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Review by Mark Novak - February 28, 2010

I simply cannot generate much enthusiasm for this release. Olsen's works were focused on songs and choral music with little in the way of pure instrumental music. Here we have three (early) examples of his small orchestral output. As one who routinely explores the by-ways of classical music, I was looking forward to hearing this little-known Norwegian composer. I was sorely disappointed. Of the three works on display here, the Suite for String Orchestra is probably the most enjoyable but it is not even close to being as fulfilling or interesting as those by Tchaikovsky or Dvorak. The Symphony is even less memorable. It just meanders around for its four movements and 39 minutes. Think of Raff on a bad day and you get the drift (and Raff himself is in the second rank of composers at best). How much of this impression is due to conducting, I cannot say for sure but I could imagine a performance with more life and dynamics which the music deperately needs if it is to rise above the morass of mediocre. The tone poem, Asgaardsreien, has its moments but it too quickly sinks into medocrity.

Sonically in stereo, the sound is nothing to brag about. It is rather opaque and lifeless. Brass lack bite and the acoustic is somewhat overplayed in the mix. A closer-in perspective would have helped.

That said, I hope that Sterling continues to release SACD's. One bad apple does not spoil the batch and Sterling is an enterprising label that has released MANY interesting recordings of little-known composers over the years. I will hold onto this disc for when SACD dies and the value of SACD's goes through the roof. I can then use the profits from selling it to bolster my retirement account.

Copyright © 2010 Mark Novak and HRAudio.net

Performance:

Sonics (Stereo):

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