Sunday 31 March 2013

Passionate playing from Matthew Barley on a new release from Signum Classics that includes Britten’s Third Cello Suite

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) first met the brilliant Russian cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007) in 1960. The cellist was visiting Britain with the composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) and was due to give the first British performance of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall. Britten accepted an invitation to sit in the Russian composer’s box. The opening item on the programme was Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.  At the end of the concert Shostakovich introduced Britten to Rostropovich who, there and then, asked Britten for something for the cello. This was to be the Sonata in C for Cello and Piano Op.65.

Britten went on to write his Cello Symphony Op.68 and three unaccompanied Cello Suites Opp. 72, 80 and 87 for Rostropovich, as well as a set of cadenzas for Haydn’s C major Cello Concerto.  All of these were premiered at Aldeburgh except for the Cello Symphony, which had its first performance whilst Britten was visiting Moscow.

Benjamin Britten’s centenary year has brought an interesting new release from Signum Classics entitled Around Britten featuring cellist Matthew Barley performing Britten’s Third Suite for Cello together with arrangements for cello of other works by Britten, as well as works by Gavin Bryars and John Tavener


From the beginning of the Introduzione: Lento of Britten’s Third Suite for Cello Op.87, with the first pizzicato notes and passionate melody, Matthew Barley makes it obvious that he is going to bring every last ounce of feeling to this work. Barley produces some lovely sonorities and the feeling of anticipation in the opening section is palpable. What a release when the Marcia: allegro arrives and the emotion is, at last, partially released. In the canto: con moto, when the music settles to a mournful song, Barley is marvellous, so sensitive to the music. The barcerola: lento, with the feel of Bach, has some lovely rich sounds whilst the dialogo: allegretto, with its strummed pizzicato phrases suddenly let go in the passionate interruptions.

There is a gloriously played andante espressivo as the cello opens out in a lovely outpouring of feeling and a wonderful Recitativo: Fantastico with Barley producing so many lovely effects. After a frenetic Moto perpetou: Presto, in the searching, wonderfully passionate, Passacaglia: lento solenne, Barley extracts every last ounce of feeling and emotion yet still allows the music to speak so naturally, every little nuance bringing forth something new. This leads naturally into the Mournful Song where even this little piece provides such feeling. Autumn flits by naturally into the Street song before the final Depart in Peace, with the Saints brings darkly telling phrases from Matthew Barley before the melody is repeated wistfully in the upper register both combining to lead into the final hushed coda.

This is a really terrific performance of this work, full of passion and understanding.

Britten’s own arrangements of Greensleeves and Salley Gardens are performed in Matthew Barley’s own arrangement for cello, in multi-tracked performance recorded at Barley’s home studio. Both receive affecting performances, with Salley Gardens particularly so.

Gavin Bryars’ (b. 1943) Tre Laude Dolce were written in 2007 and are based on religious songs from 13th century Cortona in Tuscany, Italy. There is a lovely opening laude dolce that has an ancient feel, providing some lovely cello sounds in this telling performance. The second laude dolce brings a lightened, yet thoughtful mood full of long drawn, double stopped phrases from the soloist, rising in passion at times. The third and last of the tre laude dolce opens slowly and cautiously before a lonely melody appears. There are pizzicato notes that slowly propel the melody and, later, there appears a wistful sound to the music as pizzicato ascending notes lead to the end.

Since She Whom I Loved is another Matthew Barley arrangement, this time of a song from Britten’s Holy Sonnets of John Donne. Another multi-tracked, this is a lovely piece.

Sir John Tavener (b.1944) is represented on this disc by two works Threnos and Chant. Both commemorate the death of friends, Threnos having a Greek liturgical and folk significance, the Threnos of the Mother of God being sung on Good Friday and the Threnos of Mourning chanted over the deceased in the house of a close friend. Threnos is a quiet and gently shifting piece, contemplative, with Barley providing some concentrated and touching playing and Chant is a wistful little piece made slightly Eastern in flavour by Barley’s slides on the strings, made according to the composer’s wishes.

Another Matthew Barley arrangement for solo cello, is Concord, the Second Choral Dance from Britten’s opera Gloriana, with the stately theme full of feeling.

Matthew Barley’s Improvisation is exactly that. Whilst recording many of these works in Canterbury Cathedral around 2.30am on a summer night, Barley asked the recording engineers to leave the recording running whilst he improvised. Here is the lovely result, at turns wistful, passionate and thoughtful, displaying many aspects of the cello, sometimes rich sonorities, pizzicato or harmonics. It is heartening to see that the art of improvisation is so alive and well within classical music.

Britten’s arrangement of the traditional song Oliver Cromwell receives another multi-tracked arrangement from Matthew Barley, full of fun over its mere forty nine seconds.

Whilst some collectors will want Rostropovich’s performances of the cello suites or, indeed, a recording that gives all three suites on a single disc, this attractive recital should not be missed by those who admire fine cello playing and are looking for something different. The Canterbury Cathedral recording is excellent showing no signs of the large acoustic.

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