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Britta BYSTRÖM (b 1977)
Games for Souls, for violin and string orchestra (2015) [23:36]
A Walk to Biber [1:08]
A Walk to Britten [0:53]
Heinrich von BIBER (1644-1704)
Battalia (1673) [11:29]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, Op 10 (1937) [26:25]
Musica Vitae/ Malin Broman (violin)
rec. 2016, Concert Hall, Kulturkvrteret, Kristianstad, Sweden
DAPHNE 1063 [63:57]

It’s important to point out that this disc is designed, in Malin Broman’s own words, as a ‘calling card’ for the Musica Vitae string orchestra. This talented violinist has recently become its artistic director and in this imaginative programme she leads vibrant, energised accounts of Biber’s Battalia and Britten’s ever youthful Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, a work that sounds more ‘modern’ to my ears with every hearing and one that underlines the young Britten’s fearlessness and sense of adventure. While these works are given lithe, dynamic performances, I don’t think many listeners would make these readings as their first choice. However in the context of this specific disc their presence is essential, connected as they are by brief ‘walks’ composed by Britta Byström, a young Swedish composer, who has begun to carve a name for herself both inside and out of Scandinavia, both in the concert hall and in the recording studio. The world premiere recording of her supple violin concerto Games for Souls is the big attraction here – as it is we thus have three ‘Bs’ in an unexpectedly apposite collection.

Byström has featured on two single-composer portait discs to date. I was deeply impressed by all three works on a 2015 issue from this source (DAPHNE 1046 - review) – the standout being the haunting viola concerto A Walk after Dark, in a spellbinding performance by her compatriot Ellen Nisbeth. An earlier disc on Phono Suecia (PSCD174) was equally well received in these pages (review). Both releases reveal a composer with vision and originality; while Byström can clearly muster an intriguing concept, she also possesses the technical wherewithal and flair to see it through. Games for Souls triumphantly reinforces this view.

The work is dedicated to Malin Broman and at first listen I found it a rather diffuse web of pizzicato, glissandi, silence and sparseness, stratospherically high writing, pseudo-electronic effects, syncopation, ticking clocks and whistling. Despite all this, I found it an oddly monochrome work compared to the offerings on the previous Byström discs. I also found the recording a little on the dry side. And then I played it again…. and found it coherent, compelling and novel. Its unusual structure envelops the contrasts and transitions between its four ‘walks’-each characterised by an oddly familiar repeated pizzicato ‘motif’ (in the notes the composer alludes to Beethoven, Rameau and Bob Marley but it reminded me of Poul Ruders)- and its four ‘games’. If the first quarter of the work requires concentration on the part of the listener, due to what appears to be baffling rhythmic irregularity, the effort is well rewarded as the textures elide seamlessly into attractive processed electronic-like sounds (atmospherically realised by the ensemble), Reich-like post-minimalism (which emerges from a seemingly inconsequential three-note figure) and an ambiguously moving conclusion, which evaporates into thin air via a single pizzicato E played by the soloist. I have rarely found a work that foxed me so completely on its first play, to reveal so many secrets and convince so conclusively on its second. It’s a very clever piece to be sure – and I mean that as a fulsome complement. Byström explains in the notes that she has tried to capture the musical personality of her soloist in the work. While I am perhaps less able to comment on her success in that regard, what I can confirm is that Games for Souls is a fascinating, engrossing piece, and Malin Broman and Musica Vitae play it superbly. And frankly it’s all the better for requiring such close attention from the listener.

The cohesion of this ‘three Bs’ programme is further enhanced by tiny orchestral links between the three big works. These also take the form of little ‘walks’ composed by Byström which attempt to distil recognisable fingerprints between the seemingly disparate sound worlds of the composers represented. These work superbly - to the point where you really believe these three composers actually have more in common than seems feasible. The overlaps between Byström’s concerto and Biber’s Battalia are especially pronounced – percussive effects, polyrhythmic activity, no whistling in the Biber, but a minute or so of drunken carousing. This Battalia is crisply articulated, aggressively percussive and brightly punctuated by the harpsichord, which is recorded too closely for my liking - it tends to overwhelm the strings in the quieter passages. I do find the rather dry acoustic something of a hindrance, although some listeners might feel it renders Biber’s martial effects as more brutal and aggressive than usual.

The ‘walk’ to the Britten alludes to its opening flourish before entering an eerie corridor of harmonics. This performance of the Variations improves as it goes on. The playing is largely virile and pungent, dynamic contrasts are emphasised, and while there is some lovely playing, for example in the 3rd variation Romance, I did detect elements of more ragged ensemble elsewhere. While the 7th variation Moto Perpetuo sounds thrilling, I would argue that it’s the one episode that might actually benefit from the more pronounced attacca of a small group (here fifteen players). Elsewhere I found the group to be a little underpowered. Nor are they helped by the rather airless recorded sound. In her introduction to the disc, Malin Broman refers to the disc being recorded ‘live’ – maybe that is related to my misgivings on this account.

I can absolutely guarantee that the three main works on this disc will not be acting as recording bedmates anytime again soon. It is an intriguing concept per se, perhaps more commercially viable as a concert souvenir. The performances of the older works certainly ooze freshness and spontaneity if they are a little rough round the edges. But the real attraction of this disc comes in the shape of Britta Byström’s puckish and absorbing concerto.

Richard Hanlon


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