Poul Rovsing Olsen: Piano Concerto and Orchestral Works
19 March 2013
American Record Guide
Mark L Lehman
Poul Rovsing Olsen (1922–82) was a Danish composer, ethnomusicologist, music critic, and lawyer. He studied first in Copenhagen and later in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. He’s usually (and pretty accurately) described as somewhat French-influenced (especially in his fastidious workmanship as well as the lucidity and transparency of his textures and scorings), and he is an obviously modern but never avant-garde artist—neither experimental nor conservative. There’s plenty of color and variety in his music but seldom anything merely showy or superficial. The kinship with his Danish predecessors like Carl Nielsen, Niels Viggo Bentzon, Herman Koppel, and Vagn Holmboe is detectable (at least if you’re looking for it), though Olsen has his own personality and doesn’t much resemble anyone else— nor does he sound particularly Danish. His output is substantial but not large: 85 works. Several appeared on LP (his First Symphony and Second Quartet) and there are two quite good discs on the Paula label devoted to his piano and chamber music.
This new, exceptionally-well-played-and-recorded release presents first recordings of three Olsen orchestral works: Symphonic Variations from 1953, Piano Concerto from 1954, and Au Fond De La Nuit (In the Depth of the Night) from 1968.
The notes reveal that his Symphonic Variations is Olsen’s first piece for orchestra, but you would never guess that. The orchestra is used with commanding skill, whether in quiet or delicate episodes of elfin playfulness or nocturnal mystery, or in sonorous, imposing ones of solemn majesty or martial exultation. Though only 16 minutes long the piece has a Brahmsian richness; it feels packed with enough ideas and significance to easily fill a half-hour symphony. Every note sounds, everything is a model of clarity (persuasively conveyed by Dacapo’s superb engineering), but even so there’s a slightly elusive quality, a subtlety if you prefer, that demands—and rewards—many hearings. Which is why it’s difficult to find useful comparisons to other composers. There are distant reminders of Nielsen, of Britten, of Bartok, but nothing close enough to be considered imitative.
Olsen’s Piano Concerto is a full-scale, fast-slow-fast three-movement edifice of 28 minutes. The piano writing is steely and sharply articulated, with a neoclassic hardness and clarity (described in early reviews as “spartan”) that could be considered French-inspired, though the influence, if any, is more likely Stravinsky than Roussel or Poulenc. At any rate the work has a sculptural density and hieratic, sphinx-like remoteness that’s the very opposite of frivolous or frothy, yet not ponderous or bombastic in the least. These qualities are salient in the central larghetto, where the piano alternates slow-moving strophes with the orchestra, evincing a measured, grave solemnity reminiscent of Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto before climaxing on slow, plangent brass chorales. The music achieves genuine grandeur but is still restrained, uncluttered, marmoreal. As Hemingway once put it, “The dignity of movement of an iceberg is owing to only one-eighth of it being above water”.
Au Fond De La Nuit is a quarter-hour, fourmovement suite (scored for chamber orchestra) prompted by the composer’s interest in space exploration. This frankly pictorial work depicts a journey through “our galaxy with its pulsating stars, its radio signals, the comets of its suns”; movement titles make clear that we pass a giant red star and a dark, desolate planet, and finally return home. The idiom is considerably more chromatic, more disjunct, and, well, more “spacey” than in the two earlier pieces, and much more dependent on kaleidoscopically shifting textures and timbres. I’d describe Au Fond De La Nuit as pretty good of its kind, but its kind feels dated and a bit silly. Rather like an early-1960s sci-fi film, the special effects are clever for their time but clunky by today’s standards.
Get this for Olsen’s Symphonic Variations and Piano Concerto. The really good stuff never ages.