The formation of a culture – Seraphin Chamber Orchestra

Cambridge University is a hotbed for talented, enterprising and thoughtful musicians. What better an environment then to set up a new string orchestra, a rare beast in the UK’s music scene where smaller orchestral projects are dominated by early music ensembles or new music specialists heavily weighted towards the woodwind, brass and percussion elements of the orchestra.


The Seraphin Chamber Orchestra was born out of a desire to perform the rich vein of repertoire for strings, from Vivaldi and Mozart through to Stravinsky, Britten and beyond, as well as to encourage living composers to write for this ensemble. SCO seeks to provide experience for top student players working in a condensed intensive fashion which fits in with their studies, in collaboration with young professionals. The Orchestra also aims to support emerging composers, encouraging them to explore the possibilities of writing for strings and granting them performances of their work in an open-minded culture and by committed players.

The challenges of setting up a new orchestra are numerous and complex, but the enthusiasm and commitment of the players has been a significant boost each time another challenge disrupts my plans! Repertoire planning is fun and exciting, as is rehearsing and performing with the orchestra, but devising marketing strategies, organising the box office, securing concert and rehearsal venues, hiring parts and raising funds are all removed from my artistic comfort zone and can often feel quite overwhelming. It is all worth it when twenty talented musicians come together to make fantastic music.

So what are my ambitions for the Seraphin Chamber Orchestra? I will not be studying at Cambridge forever and do not wish the Orchestra to disappear when I complete my PhD. By the time I graduate in 2019, I hope to have a financially independent orchestra with a strong following and the capacity to hold its own beyond Cambridge’s stone-walled colleges.

The original ideals of combining talented students with professionals, performing a wide range of neglected music and inspiring a new generation of composers will always remain at the heart of the Seraphin Chamber Orchestra.

Our next concert will take place at 8pm, 19th November at King’s College Chapel and tickets are available to purchase online here.


If you would like to follow the Seraphin Chamber Orchestra please do join our mailing list for notice of future concerts, exclusive ticket offers and insights into the orchestra’s process.

You can also follow us on Twitter @SeraphinCO and Facebook.


To support our endeavour the Seraphin Chamber Orchestra would be hugely grateful for donations of any size which help our continued development. Please contact for more information.

Russian Connections

Stravinsky – Suite Italienne
Britten – Cello Suite No. 3, Op. 87
Tchaikovsky – Valse sentimentale from 6 Pieces, Op. 51
Tchaikovsky – None But the Lonely Heart
Rachmaninov – Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 19

Joy Lisney – cello
James Lisney – piano

The Russian Connections Tour reached its conclusion at the start of this week at London’s Kings Place. This relatively young concert hall lived up to its claims to be a true hub for the arts, a stones throw from Kings Cross Station. We were particularly delighted with the futuristic car parking arrangements which involve driving into a lift which carries the car down into a subterranean car and cycle park… The concert hall itself is impeccably managed and provided state of the art video and recording facilities for our concert, samples of which are now available on YouTube!

Here is the Britten Suite. Head over to my channel for more…

We visited many places on this tour, some familiar, some quite new, from the Leipzig Gewandhaus to some charming smaller venues tucked away in the most unexpected places.

The ‘prologue’ to the Russian Connections tour was a very special concert in northern Germany, in the Sendesaal Bremen. Our concert was part of the Konzerte im Dunkeln series and as such, took place in absolute darkness. One cannot help suspect that British health and safety laws would forbid such a thing… Particularly in a hall seating a few hundred people!


Swung by Bruge on the way to Bremen…

Although we did not perform our complete Russian Connections programme, all four composers were represented and Britten’s solo suite took centre stage, after a contemplative opening of Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina. After recovering from the initial surprise at the removal of all light – it is amazing how dark it gets when there is absolutely no light pollution whatsoever – I felt that it was a liberating experience for both performers and audience. On stage my greatest challenge was not the physical one of navigating round the instrument, but rather remembering to keep projecting the music out into an audience I could not see.


Leipzig’s famous Christmas market

Despite the Russian theme of this tour, it was at a small but charming venue on the east coast of England that we got very close to a part of our programme in geographical terms. Clinging onto land with the wetlands of the River Colne stretching into the distance, Studio Music is the ultimate in quirky concert venues and despite its diminutive size has played host to such giants of the music world as Dame Emma Kirkby. The building is at once a home, an art gallery and a concert hall and the audience surround the players on all sides, some of them even sitting up the stairs on specially procured cushions. Only a few miles up the coast is Aldeburgh, where Benjamin Britten made his home and composed the
Third Suite for Cello.

Britten takes us on a journey from the bleak Suffolk mud-flats, through a rich heritage of western music with Bach’s solo suites clearly hovering over the composer’s shoulder, finally reaching a climactic outburst where western structural sensibility and Russian passion are combined in an extensive Passacaglia. The energy reaches a critical peak and suddenly dissipates, revealing the skeleton of the piece – three simple Russian folk songs and the melancholic Kontakion from the orthodox church.


Benjamin Britten embraces Mstislav Rostropovich – the dedicatee of the 3rd Suite (Photography: Erich Auerbach/Getty)

The rest of our programme is quite clearly Russian, but the Connections are perhaps not quite so obvious. Stravinsky’s colourful Suite Italienne opened each evening, a veritable kaleidoscope of timbre and sentiments as befits its origins as the ballet Pulcinella, a comic Punch and Judy tale first performed at the Paris Opera with sets and costumes designed by Pablo Picasso. Stravinsky’s collaborator in this arrangement was the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, who provides the link to our second half, since he arranged the two Tchaikovsky pieces which followed the interval.

The ravishing Rachmaninov Sonata completed our concert with two connections. Firstly there is the fact that Rachmaninov took inspiration for many of the melodies in this piece from the Russian liturgy, thus linking back to Britten’s quotation of the Kontakion. The second connection is a personal one: my father James studied the piano with the pianist Phyllis Sellick, who was a great friend of Rachmaninov. When I was much younger and just at the beginning of my cello playing life, Phyllis requested that we play this piece for her. However she suffered a stroke and passed away before I ever learnt it, giving us an added sense of poignancy each time we perform this music.

I so enjoyed performing this programme and will be sad to part ways with these pieces, though of course I am sure to come back to them in the future with new ideas and new experiences behind me.

I would like to thank all the venues who hosted our concerts and most importantly the audiences who came to hear us!

That’s all for now,



The Russian Connections Tour visited:

Sendesaal Bremen (Germany),
Mosterdzaadje (Santpoort-Noord, Netherlands)
West Road Concert Hall (Cambridge)
Pittville Pump Rooms (Cheltenham)
Hindhead Music Centre (Surrey)
St. George’s Bristol
Pollok House (Glasgow)
Studio Music (Brightlingsea)
Gewandhaus Leipzig (Germany)
Kings Place (London)


— with thanks to Beare Violins Ltd. —

Musica Sacra – Music, Mirrors and Bells


Musica Sacra. There is more than one festival of that name. But there is only one festival that immerses the visitor in a total experience… no sense is left untouched. The festival still reverberates with the 2008 appearance of Arvo Pärt.

On the 15th August, the Assumption of Mary, I was joined by my father James Lisney for a very special concert to mark the beginning of the Musica Sacra festival in Belgium. The festival’s home is Rosario, an oasis for reflection and rejuvenation with music at the centre of its philosophy.


Rosario: a converted convent, home to music, poetry, reflection and rejuvenation

Guests are invited to stay in simple rooms with wooden floors and furniture – nothing in Rosario is surplus and yet I have spent the most comfortable nights of my life within its walls. Meals are taken in company at the long wooden table, either indoors with the aromas wafting through from the bustling kitchen or, in summer time, in the courtyard surrounded by nature. Only organic, fair-trade ingredients are allowed to cross the threshold into Rosario, where they are combined in delicious dishes to nourish both body and soul.

The opening concert of Musica Sacra took place in the chapel of a Capuchin monastery tucked away in a neighbouring village. The chapel itself remains largely unchanged since its founding of 1616 by the Arenberg family, a secret gem now hidden among the bustling cobbled streets of the town that has grown up around it. The Arenbergs were once one of the richest families in the Benelux countries – at their most prosperous the family’s land stretched unbroken all the way to Russia. Beneath the chapel where we performed is the crypt where nearly one hundred members of the Arenberg family lie entombed.

This concert exposed many significances, some intentional, and others even we had not planned or considered. In accordance with the religious sincerity of the event, applause was reserved until the end of the concert which proceeded unbroken between each musical offering.

Our programme began and ended with Arvo Pärt, in particular tribute to his attendance at the 2008 Musica Sacra festival. Für Alina was dedicated to a young 18 year old girl just setting off to pursue her studies in London. At the heart of the piece is simplicity, indeed it was designed to be playable by any pianist, regardless of technical advancement. It is particularly notable for its bell-like tolling, the first piece to showcase Pärt’s ‘tintinnabuli’ style for which he became famous.

Tintinnabuli: from the latin tintinnabulum – bell

Benjamin Britten’s enigmatic 3rd Suite for Cello emerged out of the silence, with a deep tolling pizzicato on the open C string accompanying a simple melody whose narrow range and speech-like contour creates the sense of melancholy at the heart of Russian plainchant. At this exact moment the bells of surrounding churches began to sound their tribute to the Virgin Mary’s Assumption, their music filtering through the thick stone walls.

In this moment, everybody, of any religion or none at all, felt the presence of a higher being, or intention: the bells were tolling on the same note that underpinned the cello’s music – C.

The 3rd Suite concludes with the exposure of its central themes, that is, a collection of Russian folk tunes, taken from Tchaikovsky’s arrangements, and finally the Kontakion of the Russian liturgy. These references were Britten’s special tribute to his friend and the piece’s dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich. The Arenbergs’ ancient ties to Russia rang with silent significance from the crypt below.

Another English composer continued this programme: Sir John Tavener’s Pratirupa for solo piano held sway for thirty minutes fluctuating from celestial serenity to the deepest fires of violence piano and pianist could muster. Tavener, (like Musica Sacra) is interested in the exploration of many world religions, their differences and what unites them.

Pratirupa: Sanskrit for ‘reflection, likeness’

Finally, a return to Pärt and the familiar calm of Spiegel im Spiegel. The title means Mirrors in Mirrors and thus continued the theme of musical reflections.

The closing chord died away and one by one, audience members and performers surfaced from their respective reveries. The audience kindly applauded and stood to show their appreciation and we were presented with sunflowers by two children. It was at this moment that the low clouds parted and sunlight streamed through the dusty windows, gilding the chapel’s beauties and casting a warm glow across the congregation.

Relevant links:

James Lisney

Joy Lisney


Musica Sacra

‘JOY’ – Jan Vriend (2011)

To have a piece of music written for you can be a burden of responsibility, or it can be supremely liberating. Jan Vriend’s JOY is certainly the latter and my affinity with the piece runs much more deeply than our shared name.

This music is the epitome of true unity between piano and cello. The colourful textures that emerge as the piece progresses are characterised by something beyond communication between the musicians. Sometimes Vriend makes great use of the contrast in timbres between cello and piano and engages the musicians in dialogue. For much of the piece, however, the parts seem to be borne from one intention, requiring a special unanimity between the players to create a variety of fascinating colours from the combination of the two instruments. Indeed, when I play JOY, more than most other music, I am playing both parts, in a heightened state of consciousness which is wholly personal but also the most honest communication of the music.

Honesty is at the core of JOY. It makes evident the human struggle for, well, ‘joy’ and takes the player and audience on this journey. The music is fundamentally melodic and its unselfconscious nature is a hallmark of Vriend’s style, which is both very individual and yet instinctive to play and hear.

The cello writing is challenging because of the sweeping range of the melodies, which often span more than two octaves. Once this technical challenge can be overcome, however, the trajectories and tone of the music is strikingly vocal.

The rising phrases of the opening section seem to betray a desperate longing for something altogether out of reach, and indeed this same urge returns throughout between excursions to various ‘tableaux’. The first is a passage that glistens with the glassiness of harmonics, a contrast with the richly scored opening, finishing with the unmistakeable sounds of wailing seagulls in the cello.

Then the piano takes over, leading us into a whirlwind of stormy virtuosity, punctuated by rapid pizzicato in the cello. Out of this chaos springs, like a glorious fountain, a quotation from Chopin’s Winter Wind etude. Jan Vriend’s tribute to Chopin is rooted in a supreme admiration of his music and also a reference to the fact that JOY was partly inspired by a performance of Chopin’s cello sonata op. 65.

At the centre of the piece, there is a still moment of reflection, which for me brings to mind the cello movement of Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin de temps. Pulsing chords in the piano and a long sustained melody in the cello put a stop to the energetic momentum that is characteristic of Vriend’s music. Soon, however, the music returns to the yearning figures of the opening from which the composer leads us into a strangely submerged passage in which the cello plays quarter-tones, the highly chromatic sounds between the notes! Finally the momentum builds to a furious climax, but it is quickly dissipated, and if you listen very carefully you might hear another quotation, this time thinly veiled and played by the cello, a lone voice still daring to whisper with the spirit of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

The musical extracts are from a live performance I gave in the Pittville Pump Room in Cheltenham with my father James Lisney. The full live recording can be found here.

We are releasing a studio recording of JOY along with works by Chopin and Lutoslawski in 2013 on Woodhouse Editions.

A Royal Introduction

Beethoven Sonata for Piano and Cello Op. 5 No. 1

In 1796 Beethoven, at twenty-five years old, was an active concert pianist and as part of his Berlin tour he was invited to the royal palace by the king of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II, a keen cellist and music lover. Haydn and Mozart had both dedicated string quartets with prominent cello parts to the king but Beethoven dared to go one better – he delivered the opus 5 cello sonatas nos. 1 and 2.Image

Beethoven premiered them at the palace with cellist Jean-Louis Duport, the younger of the two Duport brothers. The Duports were breaking new ground in cello technique and are credited with the invention of the cello spike which stabilises the instrument allowing for more virtuosic playing. It is clear that Beethoven sought advice as well as inspiration from the Duports as many of the virtuosic passages in his sonatas bear significant resemblance to the Duport etudes, which are still studied by cellists today.

The only previous examples of sonatas for keyboard and cello are those by Luigi Boccherini, yet these were simply for cello with continuo harpsichord accompaniment. Other lesser-known composers had written sonatas for the combination, but these are really piano sonatas with a practically superfluous cello part. Beethoven was the first to write a truly democratic work for cello and piano, with the instruments as equal partners. Cellos in Beethoven’s day had gut strings which make a softer sound than their modern steel counterparts and did not have the advantage of a high range like the violin. Part of Beethoven’s challenge in writing these works was to balance the cello with the piano which was advancing in sound and size all the time.

He begins the first cello sonata, the father of a genre, with a slow introduction. The piano and cello play a series of uncertain questioning fragments in unison, as if testing the water of their new roles. This opening is as unsettling for a modern audience as it was in the royal court of 1796 – there are as many rests as notes in this passage! A few bars later, the cello provides the perfect antidote for this unnerving beginning: a long sustained melody high in the tenor range, which brings to mind the seemingly endless sustaining powers of a professional singer. Later a flourishing piano cadenza temporarily puts an end to the equal partnership – Beethoven of course wrote the most impressive part for himself to play! –  and after a moment of uncertainty, we are launched into the Allegro which forms the bulk of the movement. This cheerful romp is interspersed with humorous episodes such as chains of off-beat accents, intended to confuse the audience’s sense of pulse. Of course Beethoven good-naturedly ends the joke and all becomes clear again. At the end of the movement, the momentum is arrested and the music seems to reminisce over the uncertain opening of the sonata. This time the questions are answered with a frantic Presto which builds up to a long rapid trill in both instruments, holding the tension unbearably!…

…and then launches joyfully into the Allegro theme we know so well for the end.

The F major sonata is in two movements unlike the piano and violin sonatas from the same period which are in three or four movements. It is however on a grand scale, in keeping with the royal prestige of its dedicatee.

The second movement is an exciting spectacle overflowing with virtuosic outbursts from both instruments. The boisterous energy is sustained almost all the way through with the occasional wistful lull where the cello holds long notes and the piano tinkles gently. For the most part, however, Beethoven’s music is not polite and would have been shocking to an audience used to the grace and elegance of Haydn and Mozart. He makes use of the earthiest sounds a cello can make with loud scrubbing effects deep in the register. Near the end of the piece, Beethoven slows down almost to a standstill and then jolts his audience out of that trance with a cascade of brilliance and grand heroic ending.

Beethoven’s genius is such that he simultaneously achieves a superb exploration of the capabilities of the cello, a fantastic display of his own extraordinary keyboard skills and all within a wonderful example of his mastery as a composer. Thus Beethoven introduces himself to King Wilhelm II, but more importantly he introduces a new genre, the sonata for piano and cello.

Britten’s Suite for Cello, Op. 72

Backstage at the Royal Festival Hall, Rostropovich had just given the London première of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto. Britten, personally invited into the green room by Shostakovich, soon committed himself to writing a cello sonata which he duly completed and then recorded with Rostropovich in 1961. This was the beginning of one of the most fruitful composer-performer relationships of the twentieth century. Within a few years, Britten completed his Cello Symphony, which remains a giant of the cello concerto repertoire. The three solo suites were written over the next ten years and are widely considered to be the greatest addition to the solo repertoire since J.S. Bach’s six suites.

Rostropovich, Oistrakh, Britten and Shostakovich

In 1964 Britten presented Rostropovich with the Suite for Cello op. 72 as a Christmas present, inspired by a performance of Bach’s cello suites. This large work is in six diverse movements, split into pairs by three ‘canto’ movements which function like the Promenades from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition– always recognisable but appearing in new guises with the development of the suite. They help to guide the listener through this complex piece – Britten was clearly aware of the challenges of understanding solo cello music in this style. Despite having never played the cello, Britten achieves superbly idiomatic writing as he stretches the instrument to the limits of possibility.

Canto Primo

The piece opens with the optimistic Canto Primo, full of rhetorical gesture and dramatic harmonic tension-and-release. Britten thickens the texture by using double-stops throughout, often writing out three-note spread chords. It fades away to a glimmering D major and out of the brief silence, the first of our six movements emerges: Fuga.

The writing of fugues found a new vogue in the twentieth century, most notably with Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis, and Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues op. 87. Both these composers were directly inspired by Bach’s monumental benchmark: Das Wohltemperierte Klavier. None of Bach’s solo cello suites include fugal movements, because they are structured traditionally as dance suites, but he was not averse to writing fugues for other string instruments: each of his solo violin sonatas begins with a Prelude and Fugue pairing. Britten includes fugal movements in all three of his solo cello suites, recognising the advancement of cello technique that took off during the twentieth century, and rises impeccably to the challenge of creating a fugue for an instrument most suited to the realisation of one line. The cellist’s task is to bring out the different voices by variation of the tone quality and careful phrasing. The subject is exposed and developed, growing to an explosion which rapidly falls away into glassy harmonics, a ghost of its former self. Britten follows this movement with the Lamento, a simple song which blends straight into the Canto Secondo: Britten’s second use of his ‘Canto’ theme is this time suffused with melancholy.

The fiery Serenata springs out of the ashes and is played entirely by plucking the string with both hands. It has an unmistakably Spanish character and Britten uses the cello like a guitar with cross-rhythms rooted in flamenco traditions. Like its fellows, this movement outlines a clear journey, culminating in a breathless ascent to a solitary top A, with the piercing feeling of thin air and bright clarity only experienced at extreme altitude.

Britten’s next movement is another dance – the Marcia begins with the bugle calls and drums of an approaching military band, achieved by tapping the wood of the bow on the string – col legno. The music gets closer and closer until a powerful singing outburst obliterates the martial precision of the opening. The marching band is soon heard again, already retreating palely into the distance, defeated. The ensuing Canto Terzo marks a new milestone of the suite, building to a passionate climax with clashing discords and then fades away, appeased, to a deserted open D string.


This note becomes the drone for the ensuing Bordonean eclectic movement paying homage both to the Baroque style of monodic recitative over a droning bass and Balinese tuning and texture. Britten toured Japan and Indonesia in 1955-6 and integrated material borrowed from Japanese, Indian and Balinese music with his own style in subsequent works. The Prince of the Pagodas (1957), for example, is scattered with gamelan techniques from Bali.

Finally the devilish Moto Perpetuo e Canto Quarto explodes out of this meditative stasis, a flurry of chromaticism, which surges up and down, spinning across the range of the instrument. Suddenly, the Canto Quarto bursts through, and its dazzling sunlight battles to and fro with the determined flood of notes. As we approach the end, the two themes are blurred and then united for the final gallop to the finish.

Benjamin Britten

Britten composed his Suite for Cello with a performance of Bach’s six suites imprinted on his mind. Despite the greatness of this music, the most powerful aspect of his inspiration must have been Rostropovich’s phenomenal virtuosity and vitality of expression, blessing these pieces with a theatricality and communicative force unsurpassed in music for solo cello.

Recommended recordings:

Mstistlav Rostropovich ‘Britten Cello Suites 1 & 2’

Alexander Baillie ‘Britten Cello Sonata, Suite No. 1

© Joy Lisney 2012