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Britta BYSTRÖM (b. 1977)
Persuasion (2004) [8:08]
The Baron in the Trees (2000)a [19:35]
Avskedsvariationer (2005) [16:55]
En Studie in Rött (1996) [9:53]
Sera (2002, rev. 2007) [12:03]
Aria (2003)b [6:43]
Agneta Eichenholz (soprano)b; Mika Takehara (percussion)a
Västerås Sinfonietta/Hannu Koivula
rec. Concert Hall, Västerås, 21-25 May 2007 and 21 September 2007
Experience Classicsonline

Britta Byström is a young Swedish composer still in her early thirties. The otherwise informative insert notes, however, do not say much about her musical background, except that she began playing the trumpet when she was eleven years old and started her studies at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm in circa 1995. Neither is there any biography of her to be found in the Swedish Music Information Centre’s otherwise detailed list of works and recordings. So, one is left with the music which is much indeed, for she seems to have a substantial output to her credit including several orchestral works and a chamber opera Om man blir av med sitt baggage (“If you lose your luggage”) of which the final aria closes this well filled release.

The insert notes go to some length concerning the literary sources, no matter how tenuous, hinting at some subliminal programme; but “Britta Byström does not write programme music, but the titles are openers. They open doors left ajar.” Suffice it to say that some of the works recorded here have some loose connection with one literary source or another: Persuasion (Jane Austen), The Baron in the Tree (Italo Calvino) and A Study in Scarlet (Conan Doyle) whereas Farewell Variations clearly refer to Haydn and Sera is a sort of mood picture.

En studie i rött (“A Study in Scarlet”), completed in 1996, is the earliest work here. Compared to the other, somewhat later works recorded here, the music of this short diptych displays some greater urgency or impatience, as the present annotator has it, and more stringency although one quickly realises that some of Byström’s hallmarks are already present in this relatively early work.

Persuasion was commissioned for the conducting competition Svenska Dirigentpriset. The music was to be devised to challenge a conductor. The title (after Jane Austen) thus refers to the conductor’s attempts to convince the orchestra about his/her intentions, “a suitor who is measured and weighed by a finicky family” (the composer’s words). The piece opens a bit tentatively in ambiguity but quickly gains in assurance although the music allows some slower, more meditative sections soon brushed aside by Byström’s propulsive rhythms, the latter being at times rather tricky (a real challenge for the conductor here). I do not know whether this short, brilliantly scored and quite effective piece achieved its aim as far as the conducting competition was concerned, but it certainly is a splendid concert-opener that deserves to become popular.

I must admit that I am a bit less sure about the possible link between Italo Calvino’s novel Il barone rampante and Byström’s eponymous ear-tickling percussion concerto composed in 2000. “The starting point for Byström was to compose from thoughts of freedom with limits”. Right, but I do not known whether one is so much the wiser after reading this. What comes clearly through this often delicately scored percussion concerto, is the refined sound world conjured by the composer. This is achieve by leaving most if not all heavy percussion instruments out and focussing on metal and wood percussion instruments which gives the score some oriental tinge - is it a mere coincidence that the soloist here is Japanese-born?. The first two movements move at fairly moderate tempos (the second movement is clearly slow) whereas the final one is rhythmically much livelier. This beautifully crafted and often quite attractive work is undoubtedly a most welcome addition to the present-day expanding repertoire for percussion concertos.

As already mentioned earlier in this review, the Avskedsvariationer (“Farewell Variations”) rather refer to Haydn than to any literary source. One of the most remarkable things about this work is that the variations are not on a theme of Haydn but rather on Byström’s original theme. The title of each variation, too, obliquely alludes to some of Haydn’s “titled” symphonies such as “Morning”, “The Hunt”, “The Dinner”, “La Passione”, “The Clock” and – of course – “The Farewell”. Moreover, the variations are arranged in such a way as to “describe the events of a single day, starting with “Morning”. The fourteen short variations follow each other seamlessly with seemingly inexhaustible invention and imagination, while each of them is neatly characterised in short but telling strokes. This is another splendid work that I enjoyed enormously.

Sera, written in 2002 as the composer’s diploma work and revised in 2007, is probably the only work here that does not have any literary association. Rather it is “a journey through different musical landscapes, always in the evening light” (the composer’s words); but – curiously enough – it is not the impressionist Nocturne that might have been expected. Although it possesses some nocturnal sounds and colours, the music is sometimes quite nervous and at times not unlike that heard in A Study in Scarlet. Again, though, several of the composer’s fingerprints are to be spotted, I for one also noted some faint echoes of Tippett, such as his often capricious rhythms and coruscating counterpoint, but this may be purely coincidental. (By the way I also spotted some echoes from Tippett in Farewell Variations.) Incidentally I mention Tippett to give some idea of what the music may at times sound like, but in no way to suggest any blunt imitation.

The last item in this generously filled release is Patricia’s final aria of Byström’s chamber opera Om man blir av met sitt baggage (“If you lose your luggage”) The opera takes place in a limbo-like transit area, placed beyond life and on the way towards death. The characters are newly deceased (the philosopher Tobias, the businesswoman Patricia) and the Angel who is to guide the dead onwards and who continually takes on new roles. (This piece of information is drawn from the insert notes.) This quite beautiful aria is set in a deceptively simple but very effective way, and must be quite gripping on stage. It is superbly sung here by Agneta Eichenholz.

Britta Byström may still be regarded as a young composer - she certainly looks a healthy smiling young woman - but her music already displays quite a number of characteristics that one quickly comes to regard as hallmarks, were it only because they keep reappearing from one work into another (mind you, I did not say “repeating”) such as expressive glissandi, melodic phrases, rhythmical patterns and the overall tone of the music. Judging from what one hears here, one may also safely say that Britta Byström has a real orchestral flair and has succeeded in creating a sound-world all of her own. I certainly look forward to hearing more of her music in the near future. I wish that I could receive discs such as this every week.

Hubert Culot


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