Matthew Barley's Around Britten blog: from Sweden to swimming baths

The adventurous cellist continues his exploration of unusual concert venue, performing in two barns, a ruined castle and a country house or two…

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July’s Britten activity started in Sweden at Lyck√• festival in Karlskrona – it's always interesting to play Britten out of the UK where the cello suites, and Britten in general, are so much less well known – but, as always seems to happen, the work is greeted with delighted surprise: ‘How did we ever miss such a wonderful piece?’

Back in the UK, I found myself in Coggeshall Barn, a magnificent 800 year-old structure with many original beams still remaining fully intact – how does that work when window frames these days seem to rot after 30 years? The acoustic is dry as a bone, but it’s a beautiful place to play and the first of two barns on this most varied of tours. A couple of days later one of the educational highlights of the year arrived in the form of a day’s workshop in Lincoln with 73 young cellists – heaven! We spent a day working on ensemble pieces and improvising before a wonderful celebratory concert. The day was made all the more satisfying for discovering an exceptionally talented 10 year-old who I was able to steer towards the best cello teacher in the midlands, someone able to take her to the next level. 

Cello and yew treeNext up was Kingley Vale – the yew forest that is home to the oldest living things in the country – trees that started growing there around 500BC! (see right)

The following week I was a guest of the St Albans Organ Festival, playing the programme for a late-night concert in a wonderful old church I had never seen before. And after that I had concerts in France, the UK, and Switzerland on three consecutive days… It just about worked out, even though I missed my alarm call on the third day and only made the flight be the tiniest whisker. The UK concert was in Lodge Park, a spectacular old National Trust property in the Cotswolds where the upstairs grand room was just perfect for cello music – a wonderfully rich acoustic and, only seating around 60.

After projects in Austria, Rio de Janeiro and Finland, I was back home in September and busy touring for Around Britten with a couple of National Trust venues. First was The Vyne where I played in the lovely Stone Memorial Chapel where Britten and Pears had performed in the '50s – the sumptious acoustic must have been wonderful for Pears’s voice. And the following day Bodiam Castle, a picture-book ruined castle where the atmosphere was fabulous – they should have more concerts there. Before the concert was a lovely educational event with a handful of local young musicians – we had great fun discussing fugues using the sentence 'I like fruit because…' as the main fugue subject.

The CBSO have a great rehearsal space in central Birmingham that they also use for concerts and it’s a joy to play there - it’s quite cavernous and feels like a cathedral to play in but with great flexibility for lighting so we were able to make it look great too.

Then we drove north to the second barn of the tour in the middle of the Cumbrian countryside. A musical couple had bought a property – Newby End Farm – some years ago and converted the barn to use as a performance space and it brought a fantastic local crowd along. This was also the event that was hosted by BBC Music Magazine, featuring a Q & A beforehand with editor, Oliver Condy (see below).

Cumbria barn Matthew BarleyAfterwards – over wine and nibbles – there were so many questions about the programme, the music, the visuals, that it reminded me of how audiences love to engage with artists and discuss all sorts of details.

The next day was a short drive back to Manchester for an eagerly awaited concert of the tour in Victoria Baths, now disused, of course (pictured below)!

Matthew BarleyThis turned out to be a magical atmosphere – I love concerts where just by entering the space an audience feels themselves to be on something of an adventure – you can feel a difference when you come on stage and see people’s faces. I gave a pre-concert talk in the old Turkish steam room.

The next week we drove nearly to Scotland to play at the Hexham Abbey Festival. I’d never seen the abbey before and it is quite stunning – I’m not really sure what the difference is between an abbey and a cathedral, but this was certainly cathedral-like. From where I played I could see a huge flight of steps up which the medieval monks used to climb at night to their sleeping quarters.

In venues like this, the final part of the Britten Third Suite, based around the Russian Orthodox Hymn for the Dead, always feels special to play, as though the music has come home somehow. An early start the following day and I caught the train down to Bristol, firstly to play at St Monica’s Trust, a care home for older people, and then to spend some time with talented youngsters at the Bristol Pre-Conservatoire group. This kind of event can seem a little tokenistic on occasion, with only 90 minutes of contact time, but these students were so exceptionally bright that it felt very worthwhile. As I was talking to them and playing, their eyes were just so shiny and attentive that I felt very inspired by them and enjoyed talking to them hugely. Lovely to feel appreciated!

Then the last concert of the month was at St George’s in Bristol, the old church that, along with the Wigmore, is my favourite concert hall in the land. It’s one of those places where you really have to do so little work to create a good sound and it all just seems to flow – that, coupled with a wonderful crowd made for one of the best concerts so far on this odyssey. Next month has three of my top venues: Canterbury Cathedral, Wigmore Hall, and The Great Hall Dartington…

Matthew Barley's Around Britten tour continues until 4 December and you can find out more information about the upcoming venues on his website