The Week Ahead: Kontakion

Benjamin Britten’s centenary week may have come and gone, but this anniversary is still proving to be the impetus behind many of the more exciting events that are happening in Oxford. This is reflected in my concert of the week: Matthew Barley – Around Britten (Fri Nov 29th, 7:30pm, Holywell Music Room). The core of the programme is Britten’s Third Cello Suite, a reflection on death and mortality that ends with the deeply moving simplicity of the Kontakion (the Russian funeral rite). Drawing on Bach’s Cello Suite no. 5 and contemporary music by James MacMillan and others, Barley has created a programme with a suggestive narrative shape; this Cycle of the Soul consists of Pre-existence, Life, Death, Afterlife, Reincarnation. Characteristically reflective and spiritual music by John Tavener, who sadly passed away this month, has also featured in the tour.

Although he performs alone as a solo cellist, Barley enhances this medium through technology in two ways. Firstly, works by Dai Fujikura and Jan Bang create an electronic soundscape, from which emerges the free, improvisatory solo cello line, evoking the timeless worlds of Pre-existence and Afterlife. Secondly, Britten’s suite is accompanied by a newly commissioned set of beautifully suggestive visuals by production company Yeast Culture, controlled with a foot pedal by Barley himself as he plays.

The cellist has taken this exciting programme to over fifty venues all over the country this year, in honour of the Britten centenary. One of his goals in this project is to place this music in new and unusual settings, from schools to cathedrals to the South Foreland Lighthouse that overlooks the white cliffs of Dover. This concert at the Holywell Music Room is the penultimate date on this tour, before Barley’s final performance at the Red House in Aldeburgh, where Britten lived and worked, to mark the anniversary of the death of the composer whose music for the cello inspired the project. I was fortunate enough to attend a performance of this programme at the CBSO Centre in Birmingham in September. The concepts behind this tour are bold and striking, but not nearly so much as Barley’s engrossing playing. Not to be missed.

G. Masters

For more information about Matthew Barley and ‘Around Britten’, please visit his website.

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