Wednesday 16 January 2013

Matthew Barley's Around Britten

Matthew Barley, © Ben Phillips
Matthew Barley
© Ben Phillips
Cellist Matthew Barley's Around Britten tour will encompass over 100 events during 2013, Britten's centenary year, in a wide variety venues and historic places. Barley is touring a programme centred on Britten's Third Cello Suite, including a suite by Bach and contemporary pieces all arranged in an arc travelling from birth to death to resurrection. Barley opened the tour at Southampton University's Turner Sims Concert Hall on Tuesday 15 January. Though technically this was not the first event of the tour as Barley has already done a pair of workshops, with the education aspect of the tour being as important to Barley as the performances. His recital at Turner Sims Concert Hall represented the first public outing for the visual which Barley has commissioned from Yeast Culture to accompany Britten's suite.

Turner Sims Concert Hall is a brick built recital hall with a nicely warm acoustic which was perfectly suited to the dark chocolate tones of Barley's cello. Barley played in front of a screen, which he controlled via a foot pedal attached to a PC. The PC controlled both the visuals for the Britten and the backing tracks for two of the contemporary pieces which Barley had commissioned for the tour. As the programme is flexible, being adjusted for each venue, Barley also used the screen to announce what each piece was and provide a small programme note. This meant that he could achieve flexibility and communication with his audience without breaking the intense concentration by speaking directly to them. The programme played without a break, lasting some 90 minutes, beautifully balanced and intensely moving.

He opened with Dai Fujikura's The Spirit of Beings which was commissioned by Barley for the tour. Born in Japan, Fujikura has been based in the UK for 20 years and studied with Edwin Roxburgh, Daryl Runswick and George Benjamin. His new piece is written for cello and electronic backing track. The four movements of the work Aria,Floating,Awakening and Unending are played by the PC on shuffle mode, so that Barley does not know which movement comes next, providing a degree of randomness to ensure that during the long run of performances this year, the piece never gets stale. Fujikura uses the Eastern idea that a child is a spirit waiting to be born, and that it chooses the parents. As we were not told which movement was which, this also meant that it was up to the audience to work out what was what.

Fujikura's electronic backing varied between high ostinatos, drumming and roaring like the wind. The first movement opened with Barley singing with lovely tone over a high ostinato, the results being increasingly rhapsodic, but also darkly serious. With the second movement, with the roaring of wind in the background, I was conscious of how Fujikura was manipulating textures, showing off the cello against a wide variety of tones and producing some fascinating combinations. This continued with the third movement, with the edgy pizzicato cello part. But in the final movement, with the Barley executing harmonic slides on the cello, the sounds of soloist and backing almost merged, with the movement evaporating into nothing.

Though this was the first public performance of the piece, it hardly seemed like a premiere so completely did Barley identify with the music, which fitted his brilliant technique perfectly. Fujikura's sound world is one that I would like to come back to, and certainly The Spirit of Beings would benefit from further listening.

Next came Gavin Bryars The Lauda Dolce. Bryars has written quite a number of pieces, mainly vocal, based on the 13th century Italian Lauda, religious songs which were performed in a non-religious setting. The Lauda Dolce is an extension of this, transferring the lauda to the cello, but Bryars uses the ability of the instrument to play more than one note to add extra harmonic depth.

The work is based on a single, singing melody to which Bryars attaches a low drone, sometimes simply implied by the cellist adding occasional left-hand pizzicato notes to the bowed melody. The result was rhapsodic and profoundly evocative, with Barley's beautiful rich singing tone setting of the melody perfectly. In the middle section, Bryars uses harmonics extensively to magical effect, before the opening material returns and the piece lapses into just the drone. A wonderfully simple but profound piece.

Barley played Bach's Fifth Cello Suite from memory. Rather fascinatingly, the cellist is requested to tune the top string of the instrument down a tone, this has the effect of loosening the tension of the strings on the bridge, thus facilitating the playing of three and four note chords in the home key of C minor. The result is to give the whole suite a gloriously rich texture.

After an opening Prelude which was rhapsodic and darkly sensual, the Fugue was crisp and lively with Barley's playing taking on a rich chocolate colour. Throughout the piece I was intensely consious of the wide range of colours that Barley brought to it. In the stately Allemande Barley brought out the way Bach seems to play with the rhythm and structure, the cello seeming to almost improvise the piece. Being the fifth of Bach's six suites for cello, the composer is far freer with his treatment of structure that in the earlier ones, but always you feel the composer never losing sight of the underlying forms.

This feeling continues in the Courante where Bach plays with the rhythm a great deal, but always within the parameters of the form, with Barley creating a movement which combined lively rhythms with dark expressivity. In complete contrast, Bach creates the Sarabande out of the simplest of phases, just a chromatic phrase sometimes descending sometimes ascending. Deceptively simple, it succeeds in being complex and very architectonic; one of those moments when Bach astounds us with the modernity of his thinking.

The contrasting Gavotte movements were busily virtuosic, with Barley making the busy-ness simple and understated, getting to the more contemplative core of the movements. The final Gigue was a joyous conclusion, full of perky rhythms.

Britten's Third Cello Suite was written in 1971 as a present for Rostropovich when Britten and Pears visited Russia that year. Britten based the suite on four Russian tunes, three folk-songs from Tchaikovsky's arrangements for piano, and the Kontakion, the Russian hymn for the dead. Britten wrote the piece at the same time as Owen Wingrave, a time when the composer was starting to struggle with his own mortality. For Barley the work is very much about the composer's coming to terms with death, finishing the work as he does with the Kontakion.

For these performances, Barley had commissioned visuals from Yeast Culture. These took the form of stop animation, done on glass with oil paint; the results having a fluidity and radiance. The visuals were often simple in form, the desire being to articulate the structure and emotional world of Britten's work without overshadowing it. I found the performance enormously effective and, though at the outset worried that the visuals might be distracting, came to feel that the whole was profoundly expressive. There were one or two moments when the exact detail of the visuals was distracting, as you started to contemplate exacly what was being depicted, but by and large this was rare. Some times they were purely illustrative, with autumn leaves when Tchaikovsky's Autumn is quoted, and with waves and birds at other times. The intention of all concerned was to articulate the structure of Britten's work and this it did brilliantly. Whilst Barley has recorded the suite on CD for the tour, I do hope that a way will be found to capture one of his performances on DVD.

Barley played both the Bach and the Britten from memory, and in both you felt that he wasn't so much performing the music as living it. Britten opens the suite with a meditative lament based on the Kontakion, which he accompanies with pizzicato which came over like the tolling of a bell, a funeral bell. The subsequent movements, in all their variety, seem to struggle with coming to terms with a life well lived. The crisp, edgy march quotes Tchaikovsky's Autumn and we almost lose sight of the march itself, the atmosphere one of uneasiness rather than celebration. The singing lament of the Canto with its long, meandering melody, seemeed almost to be searching for something, accompanied by the flying birds of the visuals. The Barcarola leading in to the curious, darkly mysterious Dialogo.

Barley brought out the sheer sensuous beauty of the Fugue in glorious tones, before the scurrying fantastical and rather disturbing Recitativo. Here, the visuals seemed weakest with the rather odd, staring eyes which seemed too present and to make one consider, not the music, but why the animators had created such a particular image. The flighty Moto perpetuo led into the dark, quiet but eloquently impassioned Passacaglia before Britten finishes with the four melodies played straight, finishing with the Kontakion.
Barley's performance was enormously profound and deeply felt, at the end you almost didn't want anything else to happen, so complete was the performance.

DJ Jan Bang's Noticing Things was also commissioned by Barley. In the piece, Bang takes elements from Dai Fujikura's piece and remixes them, allowing the cellist to improvise over the top. The singing cello contrasted strongly with the musique concrete feel of Bang's remix. Darkly mysterious, the work was full of wonderful moments with some glorious contrasting textures.

Finally, having worked our way through birth, live and death, James MacMillan's And he Rose considered the Resurrection. Written especially for Barley, the piece incorporates 'half remembered chants associated with Easter.' The opening section was strenuous and busy, energetic but muscular in its half-remembered joy. The middle section by contrast was relaxed and more lyrical, before the opening material returned in even more strenuous form, but ending with the notes disappearing off the end of the cellist's finger board. A surprisingly strong, and muscular, response to the joys of the Resurrection.

I have not said much about Barley's technique, partly because we were almost able to take it for granted. You noticed not the brilliant perspicacity of his fingers, but the way he used technique in the service of the music. Three of the works were first public performances, but none felt like it. The whole programme had a profoundly satisfying feel of a roundly expressive intelligence.

I once saw the distinguished tenor Richard Lewis singing the title role in The Dream of Gerontius towards the end of his career. Singing without music, with his eyes closed a lot of the time, you felt that he wasn't so much performing the music as living it. Barley gave us a similar feel in this programme and at the end an encore seemed almost unnecssary. But the audience was enthusiastic so he played us The Song of the Birds, the Catalan folk-song popularised by Pablo Casals.

I do hope to be able to catch up with Barley and his Around Britten tour later in the year as it is a programme which will surely develop and grow. Visit Matthew Barley's website for further details of his tour dates and venues, also see my interview with Barley on this blog.

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