Letter in April
Letter in April
»There is everything to love about this CD [...] There is a sincerity that speaks directly to the soul« Classical Music Daily
»A superb release on all counts« MusicWeb International
Britta Byström’s music tells stories and builds structures, all from the clearest and most evocative of ingredients. Her ear for colour and her willingness to be led by instinct are both apparent in the four works included on this album, which documents Athelas Sinfonietta’s enthusiasm for the Swedish composer.
Root and Branch
Af Andrew Mellor
Britta Byström was raised on Sweden’s east coast. As a child she played the trumpet but was soon drawn to writing music, lured into the universe of ensemble sound by her local orchestra. At 18, she became a student at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, graduating six years later with the orchestral work Sera (2002).
That piece adumbrated key elements of Byström’s style: music in which a stern playfulness often induces circular weaving melodies apparently born from within. It also established the composer’s interest in high tessituras and textural luminosity. Soon Byström was demonstrating a minimalistic tendency to spin out entire works from a single entity – a theme, a shape or a chord. The technique proved both liberating and concentrating.
Byström is as open to inspiration as she is aware of the power it wields. She has written operas, orchestral and vocal works and reflected on big existential themes from psychological disorientation to climate change and the challenges faced by the Sámi population of the Nordic region’s far north. Her music is created without compromise or cushioning. Its sparse elegance has seen it compared to that of a Japanese garden.
Letter in April (2011)
In 2010, Byström received a commission from the Katrina Culture Association, which exists to support professional music on Åland – an autonomous, Swedish-speaking archipelago officially part of Finland. The work commissioned by the Association would eventually be performed, in 2011, as part of a concert series in Stockholm titled Resounding Letters.
That title put Byström in mind of the Danish poet Inger Christensen – specifically, her 1979 collection Letter in April. The collection itself was strongly influenced by the music of the French composer Olivier Messiaen and took Christensen’s lyrical verbal style even closer to the themes of love, loss and loss of self that were already present in her work. ‘The collection is a kind of impressionistic scrapbook with spring motifs,’ Byström writes of Christen sen’s Letter in April in her own programme note. ‘To some extent, my music can be characterized in the same way: a series of different events that suggest the coming of spring.’
Byström’s letter spools out from the circling motif that quickly takes root high up on the piano keyboard. This motif is danced around, ruminated upon, and toyed with – sometimes with cascading momentum and sometimes with an airy unhurried ness. The clarinet, violin and cello of the ensemble form what the composer describes as a ‘singing trio’ while the piano is set apart – light-footed, often contributing from high up and low down, sometimes two octaves apart: a seasoning to the general conversation. Beneath the surface, a slow transformation occurs, charting a journey from turbulence to calm by almost imperceptible degrees. ‘Is it the exuberant spring of life that turns into endless summer?’ asks the composer.
Baum in der Stadt (2014)
In 2014, Byström occupied herself with a series of pieces for solo stringed instruments. As much as these scores trained the techniques of the musicians who played them, they also served as ‘études’ or study pieces for Byström’s own technique – means of sharpening her understanding of the instrument in question, and of its compositional history in the hands of her predecessors.
Baum in der Stadt was written that year for solo violin. Its title, literally ‘Tree in the City’, was influenced by names given to his own paintings by the Swiss-born German artist Paul Klee, whose combination of expressionism, cubism, and a deep sensitivity to colour blurred the bound aries between art and design. In parallel, Byström’s thought process started from architectural foundations, as she ‘combined certain building blocks’ before the work in question began to take on a life of its own. ‘The city is the construction,’ she said in an interview about the piece, ‘and out of it grows something with its own roots and its own life cycle – the tree.’
Like Letter in April, Baum in der Stadt is rooted by a clear motif (or ‘building block’) heard right at the start: the piece’s first five notes, which travel up to a peak on the third note and down again, and which consistently fuel the music’s vitality thereafter. The music appears to search for the stability of the ‘open fifth’ interval, combining plucked and bowed sounds even at the same time. A plucked passage induces a notably rhythmic variant on the motif and eventually, a more obsessively driven focus on the motif drives the work home to its six concluding low A’s.
Baum in der Stadt was given new life in 2020 when it won the solo category at the so-called Swedish Chamber Games, in which scores written in the country are singled out for exposure abroad. Soon after that, it was performed by Anne Ngoc Søe of Athelas Sinfonietta – a week before the ensemble premiered Byström’s cello concerto Figures at the Seaside.
Images From the Floating World (2019)
Perhaps the greatest of the Icelandic sagas is that known as Njal’s Saga – the sorry tale of Njal Thorgeirsson of Bergthorsknoll. It tells of an escalating feud between Icelandic settlers, culminating in the torching of Njal’s home with he and his family inside it. The sole survivor, Njal’s nephew Kari, swears vengeance on his uncle’s death, but is persuaded to engage in an epic trial after which the torchers of Njal’s home are sent into exile. Central themes are perseverance, justice, conflict, and fortitude.
In 2019, the cellist Maria Isabel Edlund co-created the scenic concert SEGÏA, in conjunction with Aarhus Unge Tonekunstnere (AUT), where one composer each from Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden was commissioned to write a reflection on the saga for the ensemble Taïga – at that time a group consisting of four string players. The results were presented at the disused railway depot Godsbanen in Aarhus in September 2019.
Byström’s quartet, titled Images From the Floating World, comprises six short movements each with a musi cally instructive title. Con moto (‘With movement’) derives its momen tum from oscillating movement. A swing takes root in Ritmico (‘Rhythmically’) as a melody emerges and is passed around the instruments as the textural layers build. Leggiero (‘Lightly’) has some qualities of an Icelandic folk song (a ‘tvísöngur’), as a plain lyrical theme is induced by gentle rhythmic displacement, running eventually into harmonic strain.
Grazioso (‘Gracefully’) is characterized by a ghostly, wave-like figure using string harmonics, first heard on a viola but eventually sucking in all four instruments. Energico (‘Energetically’) generates its energy from the miniature particle accelerator of a series of repeated notes (a small echo of Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3), before galvanizing unisons and syncopations drive it forwards with an almost primeval force towards the deep breathing that shuts it down. In the final Con moto a simple tune emerges from a pizzicato figuration and is layered up in canon, leading the music steadily into a more complex conversation until it eventually grinds down to its conclusion.
Figures at the Seaside (2020)
Following the AUT project, Taïga’s cellist Maria Isabel Edlund approached Byström to write the cello concerto Figures at the Seaside for her graduation from the soloist’s class of the Royal Academy of Music, Aarhus, in 2020. The first performance would have taken place in April that year but was wiped out by social restrictions associated with the Covid-19 pandemic. The score was eventually premiered by Edlund and Athelas Sinfonietta, the co-commissioner, at KoncertKirken in Copenhagen on 17 October 2021.
Byström had written concertos for stringed instruments before, but all had taken the traditional form of a soloist pitted against a large orchestra. This work would be different, combining the human-scaled voice of the cello with a small, versatile ensemble of single woodwinds, brass, strings, harp, percussion, and a prominent piano doubling vibraphone.
The composer worked closely with Edlund when writing the piece, taking as her starting point the cellist’s playing style and her relationship with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. The work makes use of the Prelude No. 12 in F minor from the composer’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, with Byström describing her score as ‘a fantasy’ with Bach’s keyboard prelude as its ‘starting point’.
The title is taken from a surrealist painting by Pablo Picasso depicting big, rotund bodies entwined on a yellow-sand beach. More than the actual painting, while working on the score Byström considered the idea of fragments of Bach’s figurative music washing up onto a beach or shore (the ‘figures’ of the title), only to be picked up and pieced together. The structure of the single-movement work is akin to the ‘promenade’ through an art gallery heard in Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, in which the ensemble forms the ‘transport route’ into various picture or musical movements. This structural device inspired by Mussorgsky has been a longstanding feature of Byström’s music: her catalogue includes over 20 ‘walk’ works that take the form of musical strolls that offer glimpses of landscapes, ideas, or the works of other composers.
Immediately, the listener is aware of cyclic patterns held in the air, the very sort familiar from the works already heard. The ingredients coalesce, and the music begins its journey through various states, one of the earliest being a ritmico section launched by the plucked solo cello (one of a few echoes of Images From the Floating World). That quickly induces a bowed cello tune of archetype Byström shape, before the cello appears more spiky and agitated in a leggiero section prefaced by piano and bright tuned percussion. After glassy harmonies in a calmo section, the piano appears to transmute into a vibraphone.
After alternating passages of repose and momentum, the ensemble begins to take a more active and expressionist role, with glitteringly bright salvos forming portals for the soloist and percussionists steadily reaching for more timbrally cutting instruments. The cellist establishes an aerated dialogue with other strings for something like a cadenza, before circling brass begin to shroud it in a chorale-like idea derived from the Bach. As the solo cello wavers on its pitch horizon, a swanee whistle and high winds lend it support before its final ascent.