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 Mørk, 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: Barley’s well crafted, multi-tracked cello arrangements of Britten’s folk songs and ‘Concord’ from Gloriana will appeal to many. His take on Tavener’s 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.