It’s always exciting to come across a recording where all of the participants are unknown (in this instance composer, conductor, orchestra and CD company).
There’s usually a good reason why some repertoire remains underplayed or ignored altogether. Rare it is when a master composer is discovered and brought to the world’s ever-adoring attention long after his or her passing. Arguably, the last occasion of such a find was Felix Mendelssohn re-launching Johann Sebastian Bach’s oeuvre.
Norwegian-romantic Ole Olsen’s (1850-1927) prolific output likely served its day (especially the works composed for the theatre—with actors, sets and props to keep the audience engaged, the success of the music emanating from the pit was not crucial to either box office or reviews).
Olsen’s Suite for String Orchestra, Op. 60 contains highlights of what could perhaps best be described as “accidental” music for Nordahl-Rolfen’s comedy Svein Uræd (“Johnny Fearless”). After Edvard Grieg and Christian Sinding (declined, failed respectively), Olsen’s third-time lucky score fits the bill of pleasant but never approaches art. The result varies from warm (“Song,” if somewhat Grieg-informed), unassumingly routine (the sequences in “Spring” work just as well in Pachelbel and Vivaldi—it’s Hollywood-ending chord-progression is only outdone by a dominant 13th in “Sunset” that is forced to resolve itself via an unnecessary, unsatisfying leading note) to mercifully short (“Among the Gypsies” certainly has a Romanian postal code).
The bigger works (Asgaardsreien, Symphonic Tone Picture, Op. 10 and Symphony in G Major, Op. 5) are largely written in sonata form, but their key components (the development sections) do make reference to the thematic material that precedes them but are unable to satisfactory work them out. Counterpoint is virtually nonexistent. The puzzling “Scherzo” of the Symphony spins aimlessly (but, to be sure, with energy) through five episodes that belie the form, rather than push its creative envelope anywhere new.
Having studied a good deal in Germany, it’s frequently obvious that Olsen admired the work of his mentors (notably the rhythms, colours and interval-as-theme genius of Wagner and Dvořák—the Symphony’s closing movment and Asgaardsreien being chock-a-block full of examples) that go several steps beyond “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
Conductor Terje Mikkelsen seems a dedicated champion of these neglected compositions but has his hands full keeping the ensemble together. The syncopation of the Symphony’s “Allegro maestoso” never settles; the beginning of the “Andante” should have been redone.
The Latvian National Symphony Orchestra makes a heroic attempt at bringing convincing life to the music. Exemplary contributions from the principal flute and oboe (the later singlehandedly rescued the “Andante” before an unwelcome tympani roll spoiled the mood) and low strings more than compensated for the sometime wayward pitch of the violins’ upper reaches and an astonishing wrong entry in the “Scherzo.”
Overall, the sound is well-balanced (save and except for a strident piccolo) thanks in the main to the recording team.
Here’s a disc that, nevertheless, provides some novel moments and historical background to the development of Norway’s musical heritage. Everyone who has gone before—in one way or another—has contributed to the most-excellent health of today’s musical creators (cross—references below). JWR