Rather like this blog, cellist Matthew Barley is spending a whole year with the music of Britten. His time with the composer is in a playing capacity, however, for he has devised a concert program and CD that takes Britten’s Solo Cello Suite no.3 as its inspiration, with the title ‘Around Britten’. This multimedia project also incorporates works of art, and its choices of venues around Britain are significant and carefully thought out.
In our interview we spoke about the challenges and rewards of taking Britten’s music to unfamiliar places and people, Matthew gave advice to anybody learning the cello suites from scratch, and explained how this Britten year has been a constant source of inspiration to him, both artistically and personally.
Can you remember your first encounter with Britten’s music?
Yes I can. My first encounter with his music was playing in Noye’s Fludde when I was a kid. I think I was eight or nine. The next piece I played I think was the Cello Sonata, but when I came back from a visit to Russia I began to learn the three Solo Cello Suites, and started performing them back in 1991.
I discovered how very close to Bach they are in their spirit of discovery, and I have found that you can be discovering something new in them for your entire life. They’re such incredibly imaginative pieces!
What made you choose the Third Suite as a point of inspiration for Around Britten?
It’s an interesting one. The First Cello Suite is more popular and showy, but the Third is so powerful and moving, and it ends with the incredible Hymn for the Dead, the homage to Rostropovich. It’s a very special composition, and I like the way he used the folk themes. I bounced that out to do a ‘life cycle of the soul’. People didn’t realise how that worked, but it takes a new piece by Dai Fujikura, The Spirit of Beings, as Pre-Existence, then Bach’s Suite No.5 as Life, the Britten as Death, Jan Bang’s piece Noticing Things as Afterlife and then finally MacMillan’s And He Rose as Reincarnation.
What has been the reaction to Around Britten so far?
Well there is still a long way to go! It has been fantastic, and in many ways it has exceeded all expectations in how interesting it’s been. The audiences have been small, but I have received more compliments than I could have imagined. The aim has definitely been to give people a quality experience, to get their teeth in to this moving and powerful music. I find I have played to so many people where none have heard of Britten before.
I think it is challenging to get big audiences, because solo cello is not necessarily a big draw, and maybe not even Britten. An enormous number are going to see Britten concerts this year, but many say they’re going to the War Requiem, Noye’s Fludde or Peter Grimes, rather than a solo cello performance. It’s different from that point of view. There is no respite from one single instrument, but it’s a very intense way to listen to his music, and is quite a niche experience.
One of the best and most frequent comments I get is ‘I had no idea the cello could do so much!’ The electronics for the Fujikara and Bang pieces, the MacMillan showpiece, and the contrast of the Bach and the Bryars that I also play (Tre Laude Dolce) make for a good amount of variety in the program. People are put off from coming because it’s ‘just a solo cello’, but it’s a shame you can’t communicate that it’s actually very different from that.
Which performances stand out to you in the series so far?
One of my favourites so far is the performance we did in South Foreland Lighthouse in Dover, which was packed to capacity with twelve people! I did two sittings, and it was a windy, grey evening. It was an amazing setting, and the wind was whistling in the shutters. When you think about it, this lighthouse saved so many lives from becoming sunk on the Goodwin Sands.
Another special one for me was the performance in Penzance, accompanied by a piece that I’d written in four days with kids from the Humphry Davy School. We based our piece on Cornish folksongs, rather like Britten did with Russian folksongs in the Third Cello Suite. You can engage children at a surprisingly complex level, and to have so many children cheering Britten, as they did at the end of the Third Suite, was amazing!
Do you think Britten’s music is a lot more approachable than people realise?
Yes. I think it’s getting people into the right frame of mind and programming. Everyone responds to the direct emotional ending of the Third Suite as well.
What would your advice be to anybody learning the Suites for the first time?
I would say take it slowly, one page at a time, then one movement at a time until it feels familiar. Try and get in to each movement. Some people like to listen to have a guide. For myself I’ve gone in phases with that, I think it’s down to personal preference.
I think these are the best pieces for solo cello since the Bach suites. They stretch the cello with pyrotechnics, but they are never gratuitous in the way they do things. That’s the real achievement of the Suites. He was such an intelligent man, Britten, and he felt the music very clearly too.
Improvisation is a big part of your music. Do you often take Britten as a starting point?
I do sometimes. When I was in Salisbury Cathedral I did a 40-minute improvisation where I used the structure and the themes of the Third Cello Suite. That meant it was an improvisation in ten parts, based loosely around the atmosphere and key of each movement. It gave me the freedom to concentrate on what I was extemporising with those things in place.
You recorded a CD of Around Britten in Canterbury Cathedral.
Yes, that was amazing! I have had a meeting with the record company and iTunes, and I’m re-releasing the album with a recording of one of the concerts, plus the piece that we did together in the school in Penzance, and the one that we’re going to do at Upper Chapel in Sheffield on 22 November.
The tour finishes in Britten’s home in Aldeburgh, the Red House. Have you visited there previously?
That’s so exciting, and it’s on the day Britten died too, the 4th of December. They seat about 30 people in there I think. I paid a visit last year. It’s a beautiful house, in the lovely Suffolk countryside. It’s very well proportioned and large but not so grandiose. I went to look at the archive, and scoured the suites and actually found a couple of mistakes that Rostropovich and the editors hadn’t spotted, so I made three or four changes to the slurring having looked at the autograph score.
The art accompanying Around Britten is created by Yeast Culture. What do you think it has brought to the project?
They are very beautiful paintings, and we are going to do an exhibition of them in Bristol for a few weeks. I saw them in the Medieval Hall in Salisbury, and they were amazing. I use them as a stop frame animation with the Britten, so I have a foot pedal that I keep tapping to open up the pictures.
What is your personal favourite in Britten’s output and why?
I haven’t heard every piece, but the String Quartet No.3 is very special. I think the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings is incredible, too, but then so is the Sinfonia da Requiem. I find the Stravinskian power of that is just incredible.
Are there any of his pieces you find difficult to listen to?
Yes, and funnily enough it’s the Cello Symphony! I’ve struggled with that over a long period of time, and it just hasn’t moved me yet. Rostropovich’s playing has moved me, but not the piece yet, I’ve found it too dense and intellectual.
Does your wife Viktoria Mullova like Britten?
Oh yes. She has never played the Violin Concerto, but she does like Britten, especially the cello suites.
Have you struggled with Britten at all on the tour?
Not a single moment! Every performance gets more familiar. It’s about 60 shows and 40 educational slots altogether I think. It has brought about a definite sense of community, and I think that goes for Britten too while he was alive. That he chose Aldeburgh as a base for his festival rather than a big city centre venue says a lot about how he was thinking, and I think there is a similarity with my tour, it’s about music for the community.
Matthew Barley’s Around Britten tour continues until December. The concert itinerary is here, while a link to the CD, released earlier in the year, is here. Meanwhile Jane Mackay’s response to the project, A Series Of Thirteen Paintings, can be viewed here