Benjamin Britten’s special relationship with a number of celebrated Soviet musicians – most notably Dmitri 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.
Barley plays with the micro-instincts of a violinist, shading every phrase with the subtlest of nuances
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.
Artist: Matthew Barley (cello)
Julian Haylock is a widely published writer, editor and author of books on Rachmaninov, Mahler and Puccini.