This disc is a distillation of the pieces Matthew Barley is taking on his 100-date tour this year to celebrate Britten’s 100th birthday. Although it doesn’t include the pieces he has commissioned from James MacMillan and Dai Fujikura, it nevertheless centres round a single piece in the same way the concerts will – Britten’s Third Cello Suite.
As always, Barley’s playing is fearless. The disc is a voyage around the cello as well as around Britten, and one that never becomes relentless. In his Improvisation, there is skilfully woven reference to the profusion of styles in which he plays: Ukrainian folksong, jazz and, of course, tonal experimentation of the type that is so noticeable in the Britten suite and that plays such an important role in its final movement, the ‘Kontakion’ which, alongside the pieces Threnos and Chant by John Tavener, reflects on the death of close friends. There are five tracks that are Barley’s own arrangements of accompanied pieces, which he multitracked at home. Particularly well chosen for this purpose, and beautiful in its execution, is the choral dance ‘Concord’ from Britten’s opera Gloriana – a movement whose need for sustained sound and line has overpowered many a choir (professional as well as amateur) and which sounds new-born here with the warmth of the cello. The high point, though, is Barley’s arrangement of Britten’s setting for voice and piano of John Donne’s poem ‘Since she whom I loved’. Even without the words, Barley has managed to capture – and further amplify – its great sadness and isolation.