Matthew Barley's Around Britten blog: performing in Canterbury Cathedral and taking on Madonna

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The cellist takes his tour to East Riddlesden Hall in Yorkshire and looks ahead to a performance in Britten's home

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Canterbury CathedralIn October I had a little break from Britten in the first week for a string of concerts at the Oxford Chamber Music Festival – it was such fun to be on stage with other people again! And then I was straight back into it with the mysterious East Riddlesden Hall in Yorkshire, a National Trust property set in breathtaking grounds where I played in an old barn – the third barn of the tour!

The next day after a short drive, we found ourselves in Lancashire’s unsung Forest of Bowland, an area of remarkable beauty very much off the beaten track. The concert was in a church at Tatham Fells that was crammed to the rafters with a lovely warm audience with whom I celebrated after the concert with a reception in the lovely church hall. Earlier that day I had done a workshop in the delightful local primary school where the 5-7 year olds had obviously been primed for my visit.

'Are you Matthew Barley?' enquired one wide-eyed boy.

'Yes'

'You’re really famous aren’t you?', he said, still breathless with excitement.

I replied, 'Well, it’s all relative really, I’m nowhere near as famous as Madonna.'

'Who’s Madonna?' he answered. I have now officially made it.

We took the long drive home at night after the concert as the next day I was playing at the Ealing Autumn Festival in West London. This was community music at its best in a wonderful Victorian church and local singers joining a Russian choir who sang the original versions of the Russian folk songs that Britten used to base the Third Cello Suite on.

Next on the agenda was the Subscription Rooms in Stroud, which is a rather elegant old building that has all sorts of events under its roof. I wanted to try something a little different this evening, so I stood at the entrance of the hall and welcomed the audience asking them to take a chair from a huge pile at the side and sit anywhere they wanted, chatting to them as they entered. It was interesting to note how it changed the atmosphere, even though they naturally set up a fairly conventional formation of rows. By the time they were all settled they were feeling very talkative and I encouraged them to ask questions between pieces if they wished. They obliged and we actually had some interesting discussions – it’s fun to change the format sometimes.

A few days later I spent an afternoon in a Saturday music school in West London – it never ceases to amaze me how much music goes on up and down the country. This was something that parents had set up, dissatisfied with the paucity of local music provision – brilliant initiative, but sad they had to do it. Then I was off down to Southampton for a talk on Britten with film-maker Tony Palmer and Philip Reed who edited all of Britten’s letters. These events are clearly popular, with today’s thirst for information.

Canterbury Cathedral was next, where I had recorded the Around Britten CD over a year earlier in the middle of the night in the North Transept. The concert was over the other side of the Choir in the South Transept under the stunning Bossányi stained-glass windows, but the sound was just as good.

In the centre of the cathedral the reverberation is just too long for the music I was playing, but the transepts couldn’t be better; such a rich, warm and faithful resonance – pure joy to play there. After an appearance on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune, I was then in another acoustic wonder – London’s Wigmore Hall. There are a small number of venues where you really feel as if the hall itself adds something beyond that which you are playing, and the Wigmore is one of those – I was delighted at the big audience and it was probably my favourite concert of the tour in sonic terms.

The last day of the month was in Dartington Great Hall – yet another gorgeous place to play. I have spent so many happy summers at Dartington over the years that it is steeped in memories. Sadly they seem to be dismantling the classical concert series there, so locals were upset about this – such a tragedy that a resource as fine as that, in a place visited by Britten, as well as Stravinsky, Copland and dozens of other great composers, should be losing that tradition. Let’s hope it’s only temporary.

The Dartington concert was the 80th event of the tour: just one month and 20 events to go, and, unbelievably, I will have finished Around Britten. It is already the most wonderful odyssey I’ve undertaken, and to finish the tour in Britten’s residence, the Red House, on the day that he died (playing the Third Suite, all based on the Hymn for the Dead), is going to be incredible.

Find out more about Matthew Barley's 'Around Britten' tour on his website, where you can also find information about how to buy the 'Around Britten' recording on Signum.