Telegraph 20 May 2014
King Olaf, Bergen Philharmonic, review
Norway's Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra brings warmth to a concert of Edward Elgar's early work King Olaf
The biggest of all Elgar’s early works, King Olaf, also remains the least well known. It was the last to be recorded (back in the Eighties), but since then major British orchestras seem to have shunned the piece – a great pity, since it contains so much haunting music. Showing imagination, the Bergen Philharmonic has taken it up with thrilling conviction, but then this is the place for it: Olav Tryggvason (circa 950-1000) was the King of Norway who played a prominent role in the forcible conversion of his people to Christianity.
When Elgar composed his Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf (to give the work its full title) in 1896, he could hardly have known that the great Bergen-born composer Edvard Grieg had tried but failed to write an opera about Olav Tryggvason in the 1870s. Elgar found his subject in Longfellow’s version of the saga, and must have sensed that, as the only Christian Norse hero, King Olaf was ideally suited to British choral society consumption in the late Victorian era. His work was premiered at Hanley under the auspices of the North Staffordshire Festival.
Despite its provincial beginnings, King Olaf points the way towards Elgar’s mature masterpieces, not least The Dream of Gerontius, which came four years later. These were not lost on the conductor Andrew Davis, an experienced Elgarian, who brought dramatic sweep to a performance that surpassed the old recording in its vividness. It is good news that these Bergen forces will themselves record the work for Chandos next month.
The excellent Bergen Philharmonic, due to celebrate its 250th anniversary next year (and to acquire a new music director in Edward Gardner), brought warmth to the evocative opening, which Davis shaped in slow, story-telling fashion. Elgar was already a brilliant orchestrator, and his score is colourful and ahead of anything in English music of the time, most of all in the battle depicted in King Olaf’s Dragons Take the Sea.
The vocal forces were outstanding, too. The baritone Alan Opie was imposing right from his opening Summon Now the God of Thunder, and Barry Banks deployed his high, incisive tenor fearlessly in some quite challenging passages. The American soprano Emily Birsan sang with radiant delicacy. Three combined Bergen chorus alternated lusty magnificence with airy lightness – always singing with clear English that would put many British counterparts to shame. Everyone built up the epilogue powerfully: this contains the work’s best-known music, the beautiful “As torrents in summer”, which really ought to be adopted as the anthem of rainy Bergen.
Bergen Filharmoniske Orkester (BFO) befinner seg i europeisk toppklasse og vil feire sitt 250-års jubileum i 2015. Under sjefdirigent Andrew Litton har orkesteret de siste årene styrket sin internasjonale posisjon betraktelig, gjennom turnevirksomhet og innspillinger. Edward Gardner er engasjert som første gjestedirigent fra august 2013, og overtar som sjefdirigent i oktober 2015.