Around Britten


Matthew Barley adds to his reputation as one of the UK’s most innovative and creative performers with the new programme and CD Around Britten – celebrating the centenary of Britten’s birth with a selection of his works, including the Third Cello Suite and pieces by Sir John Tavener and Gavin Bryars. 

The release coincides with the start of a tour of 100 events taking Britten’s music to a kaleidoscopic variety of venues around the UK, reaching a huge cross section of British society. As well as concerts in conventional concert halls, Matthew will play in galleries, a cafe, a woodland in Devon, a number of cathedrals (including Canterbury), around 12 different National Trust properties and Britten’s library at the Red House in Aldeburgh. The events will be featured across the year in BBC Music Magazine, and one concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Find out more about the events near you here.


What people are saying

"The performance of the Suite is a very fine one … The final pages, where Britten reveals, one after the other, the Russian themes on which the work is based, are as moving as I have heard them." International Record Review, May 2013

"… this engrossing recital is a defining statement in modern cello playing … Barley plays with the micro-instincts of a violinist, shading every phrase with the subtlest of nuances, creating an introspective world of startling poetic images." Sinfini Music, January 2013 

"As always, Barley’s playing is fearless. The disc is a voyage around the cello as well as around Britten, and one that never becomes relentless." Gramophone, April 2013

Matthew Barley cello

Release date:14th Jan 2012
Order code:SIGCD318
Barcode: 635212031827

Matthew Barley gives us [Britten’s Third Cello Suite] in a superbly imaginative programme that’s full of echoes of and responses to the Britten. 


May 2013

‘Around Britten’ is the name Matthew Barley has given to a concert tour of Great Britain conceived to celebrate the composer’s centenary. Barley has never been the kind of cellist to limit himself to circumnavigating the globe in the company of Dvorak or Elgar, so the wide-ranging nature of the tour should not surprise us. His website gives details both of the tour and of this disc, though I do think the description of the disc might lead the less computer-savvy amongst us to think that when they receive it they will be able to listen to the three specially commissioned works, by James MacMillan, Dai Fujikura and Jan Bang. This is not the case: in fact, only one of the works that ‘form the basis of the recital programme’, the Britten Suite, is to be found on this disc.

The performance of the Suite is a very fine one. Barley irons out some of the violence of the march-like second movement, so that the sudden appearance of a phrase from a Russian folk song loses a little poignancy, but his view of the work overall is very satisfying and it is played with all due sensitivity and virtuosity. The final pages, where Britten reveals, one after the other, the Russian themes on which the work is based, are as moving as I have heard them.

I don’t know anything about thirteenth-century laudes, described by Gavin Bryars in the booklet as ‘religious … songs … performed outside churches and other public places’. It is the ‘spirit and form’ of these pieces, rather than the style, that he evokes in

his Tre Laude Dolce. There’s not much variety of mood from one piece to the next and I find the device of lower open string drones outstays its welcome. The overall mood of quiet contemplation is pleasing, but I can’t hear much in these pieces that is musically distinctive or compelling.

Both of Tavener’s pieces were composed in memory of close friends of the composer. They are even less eventful than the Bryars and only rarely move out of single-voice writing. Thrinos is a sombre, almost static piece, concentrated around dark sonorities, whereas Chant is more approachable, entirely in the upper register of the cello and with more movement. Each piece creates its own particular atmosphere, but Chant is easier to live with by virtue of its faster tempo suggesting more substantial musical content and variety.

When I read in the booklet that most of the recital was recorded in Canterbury Cathedral I imagined a much more glamorous sound-stage than that which is actually presented. The recording has, in fact, been most sensitively done. The cello is recorded closely, and only in silences is the listener really conscious of the vast spaces that surround the instrument. The acoustic gives an added aura to Barley’s already rich and beautiful tone and the reverberation brings a most evocative atmosphere to which even the distant flight of gulls that punctuates one of Tavener’s pieces can only add.

Five tracks, however, were actually recorded in Barley’s home. They are arrangements for multiple cellos of five works by Britten. Barley plays all the parts, amounting to nine in one of the pieces. The three folk songs work very well and so close are they to Britten’s originals that ‘transcribed by Barley’ would have been more appropriate than what the booklet announces as ‘arranged’. ‘Concord’, one of the choral dances from Gloriana, in which Barley’s ensemble sounds uncannily like a consort of viols, is also successful. It’s easy to question the point of these transcriptions, but they do work well, so maybe the pleasure of listening to them is justification enough. The sublime ‘Since she whom I loved’ from The Holy Sonnets of John Donne is another matter, however, losing much of its meaning in this arrangement whilst gaining nothing.

Just before the final item – Oliver Cromwell, frequently programmed by Britten and Peter Pears to close their song recitals – Barley includes a ten-minute passage of improvisation. This pretty much continues the mood of the Bryars and Tavener pieces, but with greater variety of instrumental colour and pace. It is a formidable achievement and Barley skilfully leads his material through a variety of treatments to close in convincing fashion. His strong, singing tone is particularly to the fore in an extended cantabile passage shortly before the end. 

International Record Review, William Hedley

April 2013

It’s crowded at the top of the cello world, and new recordings need a distinctive plan. Which is exactly what Matthew Barley has here: Britten’s Third Suite sits alongside works by Tavener, Bryars and his own Britten song arrangements.

His performance of the Britten lets the light in on what can seem a rather obscure, labyrinthine work: Barley’s clear, calm approach lays out the score before us. At its best, he reaches that radiant state of molto semplice Britten requests; at its worst, we are too aware of the mechanics involved, as in the pizzicato/bowed textures of the ‘Dialogo‘ or the fiendishly fast Moto perpetuo (for Alban Gerhardt on Hyperion, reviewed February, this is a diabolic race; here it’s tame). In the greatest readings by Pieter Wispelwey, Mstislav Rostropovich, Truls Mork, Gerhardt, and Robert Cohen – we sense an inky mystery, a transcendent agony. These cellists take risks, mercurial mood-changes and achieve a highly-charged tour de force: Wispelwey (Channel) builds up such a terrifying head of steam in the Lento solennelle, the ‘Mournful Song’ which follows has an unbearable poignancy. Barley treads more carefully and irons out contrasts. For him, Britten found ‘a quietly radiating peace in the face of death’. I’m not so sure.

The rest of the disc is like entering the chill-out room: Barleys well crafted, multi-cracked cello arrangements of Britten’s folk songs and ‘Concord’ from Gloriana will appeal to many. His take on Taveners Threnos and Chant stand out as effortlessly idiomatic. Bryars’s Tre Laude Dolce form a mesmerising meditation. Barley’s own improvisation reveals a highly creative musical mind: did we need ten minutes, though? ‘Around Britten’, indeed, but perhaps we could have had more of Britten himself. 

BBC Music Magazine, Helen Wallace

April 2013
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.

The Classical Reviewer –

April 2013

This disc is a distillation of the pieces Matthew Barley is taking on his 100-date tour this year to celebrate Britten’s 100th birthday. Although it doesn’t include the pieces he has commissioned from James MacMillan and Dai Fujikura, it nevertheless centres round a single piece in the same way the concerts will – Britten’s Third Cello Suite.

As always, Barley’s playing is fearless. The disc is a voyage around the cello as well as around Britten, and one that never becomes relentless. In his Improvisation, there is skilfully woven reference to the profusion of styles in which he plays: Ukrainian folksong, jazz and, of course, tonal experimentation of the type that is so noticeable in the Britten suite and that plays such an important role in its final movement, the ‘Kontakion’ which, alongside the pieces Threnos and Chant by John Tavener, reflects on the death of close friends. There are five tracks that are Barley’s own arrangements of accompanied pieces, which he multitracked at home. Particularly well chosen for this purpose, and beautiful in its execution, is the choral dance ‘Concord’ from Britten’s opera Gloriana – a movement whose need for sustained sound and line has overpowered many a choir (professional as well as amateur) and which sounds new-born here with the warmth of the cello. The high point, though, is Barley’s arrangement of Britten’s setting for voice and piano of John Donne’s poem ‘Since she whom I loved’. Even without the words, Barley has managed to capture – and further amplify – its great sadness and isolation.

Gramophone, Caroline Gill

February 2013

This will surely go down as one of the more offbeat centenary tributes to Britten. Barley, an unclassifiable cellist, builds his anthology around a thoughtful performance of Britten’s Third Suite for cello and the "quietly radiating peace" he finds in it. He plays multi-tracked arrangements of Britten songs and pieces by ohn Tavener and Gavin Bryars. Consoling, if hardly compelling.

Financial Times, Andrew Clark

January 2013

Benjamin Britten’s special relationship with a number of celebrated Soviet musicians – most notablyDmitri Shostakovich, pianist Sviatoslav Richter and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich – reached new heights of expression in his Third Solo Cello Suite. Composed as a present for Rostropovich to mark Britten’s Russian visit of April 1971, the music reflects the composer’s tendency to dwell on the precariousness of life during his final years, when his health was fading. Ingeniously structured as a series of striking reflections on four Russian themes, which are presented in full only at the end of the Suite, the listener is left ultimately with a profound sense of acceptance and inner peace. The meditative, elegiac tone established by Britten’s masterwork is also a marked feature of Gavin Bryars’s Tre Laude Dolce, inspired by a 13th-century collection of religious songs, and John Tavener’s Threnos and Chant, both haunting reflections on the loss of close friends.

Released in conjunction with Matthew Barley’s trailblazing 100-date tour of the UK marking Britten’s centenary year, played in an eclectic variety of venues (including a Devonshire wood), this engrossing recital is a defining statement in modern cello playing. Gone are the days when great players (Rostropovich included) tended to think instinctively on a grand scale, like a metaphorical bear-hug. Barley plays with the micro-instincts of a violinist, shading every phrase with the subtlest of nuances, creating an introspective world of startling poetic images. His treasurable multi-tracked adaptations of Britten folksong arrangements and an absorbing 10-minute improvisation recorded in the wee small hours in Coventry Cathedral provide the icing on a stunningly played and engineered musical cake. 

Sinfini Music, Julian Haylock

January 2013

Cellist Matthew Barley is early off the mark in celebrating the centenary of Benjamin Britten. And he’s not just confining himself to CD, but undertaking a 100-event tour around the UK to boot. At the core of his programme is the Third Cello Suite, written for Rostropovich in 1971 and based on Russian themes, including the Russian Orthodox Church’s hymn for the dead, the Kontakion. Barley plays it with a sometimes old- mannish, knowing reflectiveness. He follows it with five of his own multi-tracked Britten arrangements, which he delivers with sophisticated, pop-song sensibility. He persuasively brings a similar sense of ownership to Gavin Bryars’s Tre Laude Dolce, and rather less convincingly to John Taveners Thrinos and Chant.

The Irish Times, Michael Dervan

  1. Third Suite for Cello Op 87: I Introduzione: Lento – Benjamin Britten – 2.11
  2. Third Suite for Cello Op 87: II Marcia: Allegro – Benjamin Britten – 1.49
  3. Third Suite for Cello Op 87: III Canto: Con moto – Benjamin Britten – 1.19
  4. Third Suite for Cello Op 87: IV Barcarola: Lento – Benjamin Britten – 1.33
  5. Third Suite for Cello Op 87: V Dialogo: Allegretto – Benjamin Britten – 1.43
  6. Third Suite for Cello Op 87: VI Fuga: Andante espressivo – Benjamin Britten – 2.55
  7. Third Suite for Cello Op 87: VII Recitativo: Fantastico – Benjamin Britten – 1.08
  8. Third Suite for Cello Op 87: VIII Moto perpetuo: Presto – Benjamin Britten – 0.57
  9. Third Suite for Cello Op 87: IX Passacaglia: Lento solenne – Benjamin Britten – 4.25
  10. Third Suite for Cello Op 87: Mournful Song – Benjamin Britten – 0.33
  11. Third Suite for Cello Op 87: Autumn – Benjamin Britten – 0.19
  12. Third Suite for Cello Op 87: Street Song – Benjamin Britten – 0.26
  13. Third Suite for Cello Op 87: Depart in peace, with the Saints (Kontakion) – Benjamin Britten – 2.42
  14. Greensleeves – Trad, arr. Benjamin Britten, arr. Barley – 2.06
  15. The Salley Gardens – Trad, arr. Benjamin Britten, arr. Barley – 2.33
  16. Tre Laude Dolce: I – Gavin Bryars – 6.26
  17. Tre Laude Dolce: II – Gavin Bryars – 5.19
  18. Tre Laude Dolce: III – Gavin Bryars – 5.47
  19. Since she whom I loved – Benjamin Britten, arr. Barley – 3.28
  20. Threnos – John Tavener – 7.12
  21. Chant – John Tavener – 4.26
  22. Concord – Benjamin Britten, arr. Barley – 2.26
  23. Improvisation – Matthew Barley – 9.52
  24. Oliver Cromwell – Trad, arr. Benjamin Britten, arr. Barley – 0.49