Saturday 1 June 2019

Whatever the tradition, people are people and music is music: cellist Matthew Barley on Sir John Tavener, Indian music, collaboration & more

Matthew Barley and Sinfonietta Riga  (Photo Darren Rumney)
Matthew Barley and Sinfonietta Riga (Photo Darren Rumney)
The cellist Matthew Barley brings a sense of adventure to whatever his projects, whether it be performing Bach and Britten cello suites on a UK tour with visual from Yeast Culture [see my review], joining with Indian musicians, or playing Brazilian bossanovas. His latest project involves one of Sir John Tavener's most beloved works The Protecting Veil for cello and string orchestra. Having beeing playing the work for around 25 years, Matthew has now recorded the work for Signum Classics, directing Sinfonietta Riga from the cello. I recently met up with Matthew to chat about Tavener, Indian music, collaboration and more.

Matthew Barley (Photo Madeleine Farley)
Matthew Barley (Photo Madeleine Farley)
Matthew was one of the early adopters of Tavener's The Protecting Veil though he then adds that all cellists were early adopters. Someone he knows who was at the work's BBC Proms premiere in 1989 (played by Steven Isserlis with Oliver Knussen conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra) commented that it felt as if something extraordinary had happened [see the 2005 article in The Gramophone about the premiere], and word go around. Matthew's first experience playing the work was in the orchestra, when he was played with the London Sinfonietta with Christopher van Kampen in the solo part in the early 1990s.

But playing a work and recording it are two different things, and ever since he started recording solo discs Matthew has only recorded works about which he feels that he has something else to say. So whilst he plays works like Bach's cello suites in concert he has no plans to record them, feeling that at the moment he has nothing to add to recordings that have already been made. Though, never say never, this may change.

Matthew spent a day with Sir John Tavener discussing The Protecting Veil, and during this time Tavener's interest in and influence by Indian music came up.
Indian classical music is something that has long interested Matthew and he has been playing with Indian classical musicians for twenty years. He discovered from Sir John that the grace notes in the solo part in The Protecting Veil were intended to be performed not like Western classical grace notes but more like Indian classical ones, and Matthew went back to re-finger his copy of the solo part so that the grace notes were almost slides. The other aspect of The Protecting Veil which interested Matthew was Sir John's use of quarter tones, something that cellists sometimes shy away from. Having been long familiar with non-Western scales which use quarter tones, Matthew worked on the quarter tones in The Protecting Veil. These aspects of the work meant that he felt that there was room for another performance on disc.

Another aspect of Matthew's recording with Sinfonietta Riga is that he directs the work from the cello. This is something he first did in performance with the London Sinfonietta, having played The Protecting Veil a dozen or so times with a conductor. Matthew feels that The Protecting Veil is a very intimate piece, and it can be tricky when performed with a conductor, with issues of who follows whom. He felt that having the orchestra following him directly might benefit the chamber nature of the piece. Of course, there are passages where this is difficult and for the recording he had a rehearsal with the string principals where it was decided who was leading whom, making the performance much more akin to chamber music. One extremely tricky passage was solved by having the cello and bass parts re-printed with the solo cello part cued in. For the recording Matthew used the minimum forces stipulated in the score (88663) and found it beautiful to perform the work as chamber music.

Matthew Barley and Sinfonietta Riga (Photo Darren Rumney)
Matthew Barley and Sinfonietta Riga (Photo Darren Rumney)
The work's very spareness makes it difficult, there are no rich complex textures behind which to hide. And Matthew understood from Sir John that the composer liked the work like this, so that each performer really did make it their own. Sir John  was very keen that performers explore what was behind the score, and the apparent anomalies in it are there because Sir John wanted performers to work things out for themselves.

The Protecting Veil is a very overtly Christian work, inspired by a miracle in the Byzantine church and with each movement named for an aspect of the Christian faith (Annunciation, The Incarnation, The Resurrection). All this might be expected to limit the work's appeal, but somehow it goes to the heart. Part of the reason for this, Matthew thinks, is that the very titles that Sir John chose for the movements can often be appreciated in certain ways by non-believers. For 'The Lament for the Mother of God', you don't need to be religious to appreciate the powerful emotions of a mother seeing her son being crucified. And 'The Resurrection' can seem to celebrate the sheer joy at being alive. Whilst for 'The Incarnation', the moment the Holy Spirit comes into Jesus in his mother's womb, can be looked at in a secular way as the extraordinary creation of new life. By choosing these aspects of religion, Matthew feels that Sir John gave the work enormous universal appeal.

John Tavener: The Protecting Veil - Matthew Barley - Signum Classics
Like many listeners of the work, when Matthew heard it for the first time it seemed a vast tapestry of unstructured, song-like melisma. In fact, on closer knowledge Matthew discovered that The Protecting Veil is in fact incredibly tightly composed. Each section is in song form, yet within these there are canons, augmentation, diminutions, inversions and more. And Matthew feels that part of the work's genius is the way Sir John's brain and heart worked together.

Evidently Sir John was listening to an enormous amount of Indian music whilst working on The Protecting Veil, and Matthew points out that when Westerners listen to Indian classical music it can sound like one long melismatic passage but in fact is tighly constructed.

One interested aspect to Matthew's recording is that it includes three passages of spoken word, poetry by W.B Yeats, and Frithjof Schuon (a Swiss philosopher and metaphysician inspired by Hindu philosophy) spoken by Olwen Fouéré and by Julie Christie. As Sir John was a lover of poetry, Matthew wanted to include the spoken word on the disc and the poems are taken from Sir John's favourite poems. Also, Matthew comments, he feels that poetry, at its best, is the only art form that come closest to music, and he also felt very lucky at being able to get Julie Christie to read.

Many of Matthew's projects involve others as collaboration is something that he is drawn to, he loves working with other people. And his collaborators are not just Western musicians, but are drawn from a wide range of other classical traditions. A few days before we spoke, he had just given a programme in Lithuania with a tabla player, and has been working with Indian musicians for 20 years. By now, he does not feel that in playing with musicians from the Indian classical tradition he is doing anything different, it is all part of a quest to find differences and similarities. With Indian classical music, Matthew feels that the differences between Indian and Western classical music are tiny. His recent repertoire has included Indian classical music, music by Jonathan Harvey including electronics and The Protecting Veil, and he sees more similarities than you might imagine. For Matthew, whatever the tradition, people are people and music is music.

Matthew's engagement with world music arises partly because he describes himself as naturally adventurous and curious. As a teenager he would leaf through records and try anything which looked interesting. As a student in London he would go to three or four concerts per week, and had a voracious appetite. His time included the Varese festival on the Southbank, and the Stockhausen festival.

Matthew started out in music with what he describes as a short, unsuccessful career as a pianist, aged five. He started playing the cello because an older friend was already learning the instrument, but after three lessons he announced that he was going to be a professional, be really famous and have his own helicopter! He still has not managed yet managed the helicopter.

Matthew Barley
Matthew Barley
On June 5, Matthew will be performing at Kings Place in a programme which will take the listener through Brazilian jazz, Bach, Handel, Barber and more. Matthew likens the programme to a film score, taking the listener on a broad emotional journey. Matthew is joined by an eleven-piece string orchestra and a jazz percussionist, and he is excited that the preparations for the concert will be based around a five-day residency in the Cotswolds, allowing the musicians to really explore the programme. Further information from the Kings Place website.

Then on 15 June, Matthew will be launching The Protecting Veil CD with a concert at Winchester Cathedral with hand-picked string ensemble. Further information from the Winchester Cathedral website.

Further ahead, he is performing with tabla and sarod at the Petworth Festival, combining Indian classical music with Bach's suites for solo cello.
Matthew Barley live:
  • 5 June - The Girl from Ipanema, Matthew Barley and Ensemble - Kings Place 
  • 15 June - The Protecting Veil, Matthew Barley and Ensemble - Winchester Cathedral
  • 31 July - Matthew Barley, Ustad Sukhvinder Singh and Soumik Datta - Petworth Festival
A full list of Matthew's performances can be found on his website.

Matthew Barley on disc:
  • John Tavener: The Protecting Veil - Matthew Barley, Sinfonietta Riga - Signum Classics
  • Around Britten: Britten, Bach - Matthew Barley - Signum Classics
  • The Peasant Girl - Matthew Barley, Victoria Mullova - Onyx
  • Dance of the Three Legged Elephants - Matthew Barley, Julian Joseph - Signum Classics
  • Reminding: Shostakovich, Schnittke, Kancheli, Part - Matthew Barley, Stephen De Pledge - Quartz Music
Elsewhere on this blog
  • Musical delights: Gluck's Bauci e Filemone and Orfeo from the Mozartists (★★★★) - opera review
  • Sheherazade: a work which spans both Persian and Western classical music (★★★) - Cd review
  • Thrilling pianism: Igor Levit in Ronald Stevenson's Passacaglia on DSCH - concert review
  • Guitar & strings; Morgan Szymanski & Benyounes Quartet at Conway Hall  - concert review
  • A Victorian 'Love Island' - Handel's Partenope from Hampstead Garden Opera - opera review 
  • An eclectic mix: I chat to Clare Stewart of the vocal group Apollo5 about their latest release, O Radiant Dawn  - interview
  • Polish connections: Grazyna Bacewicz, Witold Lutoslawski, Henryk Gorecki from Southbank Sinfonia  (★★★★) - CD review
  • The textures of sound: Bastard Assignments at Mountview in Peckham (★★★) - concert review
  • Clive Osgood: Sacred Choral Music (★★★½)  - CD review
  • Delicatessen II - More Choice Morsels of Early English Song (★★★) - CD review
  • Dresden Music Festival 2019
    • Three continents, three composers, one concerto - festival debuts its 2019 commission (★★★) - concert review
    • Visitors in fine form: the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla (★★★) - concert review
    • Visions of the original sound: colour, texture & timbre to the fore in the opening concert of the 2019 Dresden Music Festival (★★★) - concert review 
  • Incredibly informative & inspiring: Charlotte Bray discusses her mentor Oliver Knussen in advance of her piece in his memory at the Aldeburgh Festival - interview
  • An English Vespers: Rachmaninov from the Tallis Scholars (★★★) - concert review 
  • Home

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