Matthew Barley's Around Britten blog: the final chapter

Matthew Barley looks back on a mementous year with his Around Britten tour, and brings his BBC Music blog to a fitting close

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With the Britten year long gone, it’s very pleasurable to look back and reflect on an extraordinary year – but first, let me describe the final month of concerts and workshops.

November began with a lightning trip north for 3 events in one day for SOUND SCOTLAND, Aberdeen’s highly innovative new music festival.

All events took place in the city’s art gallery, and in the first one I was a sound installation (a little like Salisbury in January), sitting up on a high balcony above the punters, improvising to my heart’s content – it was a great way to warm up for the afternoon’s recitals and I had a favourite moment when a toddler came and stared directly in my eyes for a good 2-3 minutes as I played – the young are so fearless.

Then a pair of recitals, featuring a Britten suite in each – I particularly enjoyed getting questions from members of the audience between the pieces, creating a relaxed atmosphere for the music to sit in.

The next leg of the tour took me to North Wales, a place I know well from holidays, but somewhere my cello has never taken me. On the remote and beautiful Llyn Peninsula, at the Galeri (near Pwllheli) I played for a small but appreciative audience and wondered, as I often do, what sort of people come along to these events. One very great musician once told me that it was important that you give everything for every single concert, not just the big ones, as you never know who will be there.

I bore that in mind that night and afterwards a rather distinguished looking gentleman approached me introducing himself as Osian Ellis, the legendary harpist for whom Britten had written much; I was so happy to meet him, having known of him since my student days. The next day I travelled on to Caernarfon to play in their wonderful new venue, also a Galeri and I also managed to fit in a workshop with 8 local cellists. I must have met over 200 young cellists on this tour!

The next trip was another unusual one: the Isle of Man. In a short 24 hours I tried to learn as much about the place as I could – a turbulent history full of inevitable invasions, the consequence of being equidistant between Ireland, Wales and England – and a concert in a charming multi-purpose hall where they are keeping the arts alive thanks to some very energetic locals. Dark, grey, wintry weather.

The following week was my week in Sheffield, the city where I did most of my growing up. I played in someone’s front room on the Tuesday night that turned into one of my favourite events of the tour. Maybe 25 people crammed into a space with often poor sight-lines and no natural acoustic to speak of, but this event just served to remind me of how important the audience is in any concert equation.

They were so enthusiastic, and so completely wanted to be there that it seemed to me that they created an atmosphere all on their own – Wigmore-type acoustics are wonderful, but the exchange of music between performer and listener can happen so vividly without that. A special memory.

I then led a series of workshops during the week for different groups of young musicians, including visits to my old primary and secondary schools – very emotional – and on the Friday played at the wonderful Upper Chapel. This concert was to be recorded for an iTunes release the following week but I actually had a horrible bout of bronchitis and while I think the concert was a success – everything in the room felt good - it didn’t seem to me to be good enough for a release.

I fretted about this for a few days (taking in a workshop at the fantastic London Dunraven School for marvellous GCSE students and a concert in Keele University) and then decided to record my final full-length concert at Oxford’s Holywell Music Room and hope it came out better.

I was fully recovered by this time and the concert went really well – I love this venue (England’s oldest purpose-built concert hall: Handel played there) and it brought back great memories – and a good audience – from the Oxford Chamber Music Festival.

So as well as the CD of Britten for the tour there is now a live recording that includes premiere recordings of the MacMillan, Jan Bang and Fujikura as well as the encore (Appalachia Waltz by Mark O’Connor) that was a favourite with many, and my first available recording of a Bach suite.

I had one more workshop at Full of Life, a day-care centre in London for children with autism (as always, I was mesmerised by their response to live music – as I was improvising with Britten themes), and then an afternoon at The Red House in Aldeburgh with young cellists.

That, amazingly was event number 99 and suddenly the end of the tour was upon me. It was three and a half years since I had first dreamt up the idea for the tour and it had gone through so many incarnations since then, but this really was the final day, at the house where Britten lived for so long, writing many of his masterpieces including most of the works for cello.

As I sat on Britten’s piano stool and warmed up, his niece remarked that the last cellist she had heard in that room was Rostropovich. It was that kind of day, really, sitting and making music next to the original William Blake painting.

I was quite overcome by the wonder of the occasion, event number 100, and also at actually ending this momentous tour – playing there is hard to describe, but after having played the Third Suite over 60 times in the year I felt so completely at one with the work.

I’ve never felt like that before with any repertoire and have learnt so much this year – my teacher in Moscow used to say that whatever level you attain with a piece it is then easier to reach the same level with other pieces, so it’s really worth sometimes concentrating on one thing for a long time. I think I managed that.


 

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