Poul Rovsing Olsen: Piano Concerto and Orchestral Works
26 February 2013
The Danish composer Poul Rovsing Olsen (1922-1982) had an interesting and multifaceted life: Not only did he graduate from the Royal Danish Academy of Music with diplomas in musicology and piano, but he also graduated from Copenhagen University with a degree in law. In 1948-1949 he went to Paris to study music with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen; it was in Paris that he also began exploring further the music of other cultures, something which had interested him since his youth. Fascinatingly, he later returned to Copenhagen, where he put all of his talents—and his degrees—to good use: He became a lawyer at the Ministry of Education, a music critic for the newspapers Information and Berlingske Tidende , a researcher in the field of ethnomusicology, and a composer. It was in the 1950s that he first began to compose orchestral pieces, of which two of those here—the Variations Symphoniques and the Piano Concerto—are the earliest examples.
What is in evidence, even from the very beginning of his career as an orchestral composer, is that he has a real sense of color and balance. Interestingly, perhaps because he studied in Paris with two famous pedagogues, his music is described as having a bit of that “French spirit.” And while this may be somewhat true, there is something about his music that sounds especially northern, more Scandinavian to my ears.
The Variations Symphoniques is truly stunning. The almost 16-minute composition washes over as though one is being bathed in different colors: One cannot believe that time can move so quickly in a piece which seems so static in certain ways.
The piano concerto is much different in mood. While it still retains the refined qualities of the earlier work—the clarity, the light textures, the colorful harmonic sense—it is overall a more driving work. The piano is featured throughout and has, what I like to call, a sense of melodic figuration. There is hardly a tune that one can remember in the work, yet the highly personal way in which the piano is featured, from the majestic and powerful opening movement to the more delicate figurational webs found in the Larghetto, remains with one far after the work has ended.
The later Au fond de la nuit is a much more intimate composition, scored for chamber orchestra. Its four movements each deal with a different aspect of a trip through outer space, past stars and dead planets, and an eventual return home. All four movements are evocative in mood, making use of various combinations of instrumental timbres. Part of their brilliance is their reliance on constant change and the listener’s imagination.
Luckily the three works could not have more solid performances than they find here. It is obvious that not only are the players committed, more importantly they love this music. And love this music you will too after hearing these performances. All I can say is grab it, sit back, and close your eyes when listening: The music will do the rest.