Two musicians, pianist and cellist, entered on stage and started playing. After three or four minutes, the cellist stood up and spoke: “Thought that I had forgotten to talk, didn’t you?”

Matthew Barley © Nick White
Matthew Barley
© Nick White

Passionate about education, cellist Matthew Barley took the audience at St George’s through Beethoven’s Cello Sonata no. 3 in A major for an evening rush-hour concert after a cello masterclass in the afternoon. He covered the technicalities of sonata form, describing it as a “linear journey”, and also the intricacies of the opening theme and how the rest of the first movement had been devised from it with “intellectual vigour”. The talk was not only appealing to those who knew something of the theory of music, but also particularly useful to those who might have been less familiar with it.

The rush-hour concert combined an informative air with a light-hearted approach to the music. A witty few words were read summarizing Beethoven’s character but also sensitively approaching the subject of his withdrawal from society due to his loss of hearing. It was in this seclusion that Beethoven wrote a huge number of compositions, including this sonata in 1808. Pianist Reinis Zarins accompanied Matthew Barley on stage. He mainly just performed, but was invited to stand up and speak briefly about the piano music, in which he expressed his pleasure in performing the piece and explained the strength needed to play the piano score.

This was far from the normal concert at St George’s, but it was enlightening, with Matthew Barley unafraid to deal with the gritty details of the music and answering questions from the audience. He spoke honestly and clearly, putting his own twist on things. The most interesting part of the talk concerned how when the piece was first performed, the sonata form structure was as relevant to the audience then as the form of a popular song is today, and that sometimes we relate more to the things we know most about. It was interesting, then, that he went on to answer a question by stating that it was not vital to have an in-depth knowledge of the musical structure as a performer.

The first snippet of the Beethoven sonata played by Barley and Zarins, before they stopped to talk, was not nearly as refined as when they performed the piece all the way through. During this later performance, it became clear that not only is Matthew Barley an excellent speaker on music, but he is also a great instrumentalist. The tone of the cello was particularly rich in the Sturm und Drang section of the first movement where his double-stopping was fiery and passionate. Contrasting with this was a lulling, sweet adagio in the third movement where Barley made the cello sing whilst he played sonorous notes creating conversation between cello and piano. Though the piano can sometimes lose out to the “front man”, Zarins held his own. There was emotion and depth to his playing, which complemented Barley’s style. Neither instrument was approached selfishly and the performers worked on stage with the audience in mind. The music, therefore, was enhanced by the delightful duo and their learned approach to classical music. It is great to see classical music challenged in a concert form in this way.

***11