The Great Recording Success

The Oslo Philharmonic started recording regularly already in the 1950s and in the decades which followed, produced a large amount of varied recordings under various labels. In the 1980s, however, the orchestra was to experience a recording success hardly anyone had dared dream of.

In 1983, Principal Conductor Mariss Jansons and the orchestra made the decision to embark on a project: they recorded Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony as a demo, with the aim of securing a recording contract with an international label. Neither conductor nor orchestra received any payment for this.

Orchestra producer Terje Mikkelsen and orchestra chairman and viola player Oddvar Mordal travelled to London with the aim of presenting the fresh Tchaikovsky recording to different labels. And they succeeded − with the small but respected label, Chandos. 

Chandos Records was founded by Brian Couzens as late as 1979, but had already achieved recognition for its recordings of high quality, not least the quality of its sound. The company entered into a contract with the Oslo Philharmonic to record all Tchaikovsky’s symphonies. Thus, Chandos became part of the orchestra’s success story − and vice-versa. 

The meeting was summed up in Brian Couzens’ obituary in The Telegraph in 2015: 

“When, in 1984, two Norwegian orchestra executives handed Couzens a cassette of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 5, he was so impressed by it that the next day he signed Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic to the label, making household names of them both.” 

The first CD, featuring the fifth symphony, was released in the autumn of 1984. The release was well-timed to coincide with an ambitious tour of the UK. The orchestra had sought to build up its reputation in England through a tour two years earlier, and it now returned to perform at a series of attractive concert venues. 

That the Oslo Philharmonic had made its debut in the international recording market was news in itself, and interest from Norwegian press did not abate when positive reviews started appearing internationally. In the winter of 1985, Edward Greenfield wrote in leading British music magazine Gramophone:

“Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic won glowing notices after their recent concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London, and now I can understand why. (…)

The Oslo string ensemble is fresh and bright and superbly disciplined, while the wind soloists are generally excellent with an attractively furry-toned but not at all wobbly or whiny horn solo in the slow movement.

The Chandos sound lives up to the extremely high reputation of that company, very specific and well-focused despite a warm reverberation, real-sounding and three-dimensional with more clarity in tuttis than the rivals provide.

This first issue in a projected Tchaikovsky series from Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra could hardly be more promising. All round there is no current rival quite to match this: a warm recommendation …”

Greenfield was also enthusiastic about subsequent recordings, and he later described Jansons (also in Aftenposten) as one of the world’s best conductors. He was of the opinion that the Oslo Philharmonic was on the level of the world’s best orchestras − perhaps with the exception of the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics at their best.

The orchestra was soon faced with a difficult choice when it received a unique offer from recording giant EMI. The ties with Chandos were strong, but the advantages EMI could offer when it came to distribution and marketing were convincing. The new contract was signed in the autumn of 1986, and in the next decade a string of new EMI releases was produced.

(Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)

Plateomslaget til den første Tsjaikovskij-utgivelsen på Chandos Records fra 1984.

The First Recordings

The Oslo Philharmonic made a great number of recordings in the 1950s, mostly for American record labels. For the label RCA Victor alone the orchestra recorded around 100 works, and the orchestra also collaborated with His Master’s Voice and Mercury.   

A part of the recordings included the standard classical repertoire, but the orchestra also recorded quite a bit of newer American music. While Odd Grüner-Hegge and Øivin Fjeldstad conducted the classics, various guest conductors took the reponsibility for the American repertoire.

A conductor who frequently guested in Oslo during this period, was the Italian-American conductor Alfredo Antonini. He was the Music Director for the television production company CBS, and is described as follows in Aftenposten in June 1957:

Alfredo Antonini … has become a fiery advocate of the Philharmonic after his experiences in Oslo. It’s far from trivial that a man in his position makes use of every opportunity to mention the speed and ability of our musicians when facing unknown modern composition. He has repeatedly confided that he knows no orchestra in the United States who can work as fast and as expertly with new music as they can”.

At the time, working on the recordings was considered to be something of a private matter for the musicians, and the orchestra had no system for keeping track of what was being recorded. With recordings taking place “after working hours”, a working day for a musician could easily extend from the morning until midnight.

Arne Novang, a cellist in the orchestra from 1945, is quoted in one of the orchestra’s anniversary programmes, discussing the first decade of recordings. “You know, being a musician in Norway at that time was not a job associated with status or high pay. We simply couldn’t afford to say no”.  

(Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa)

En av Oslo-Filharmoniens utgivelser fra 1950-tallet.