June 15 2022 (and on tour to Liverpool 17/6, London 19/6, Manchester 23/6 and Bristol 24/6) See manchestercollective.co.uk
Review: William Ruff
Manchester Collective offers a musical adventure with plenty of surprises along the way
If you’re ever worried about getting stuck in a musical rut, then I strongly suggest you start following Manchester Collective. It’s not just that every programme they devise is unpredictable, you’d have to be a pretty foolhardy gambler to bet on how many performers there will be, what instruments they’ll be playing or whether their repertoire will soothe the ears or subject them to a bracing work-out.
Only last month they were at Lakeside with a programme involving dance, electronics, field recordings, clashing clocks and rhythmic earworms. On Thursday the mood couldn’t have been more different: some very new music (including a world première) as well as a rarity dating back to the 17th century. Manchester Collective create an ambiance where anything is possible and where the audience is invited to join a musical adventure on which each listener will discover unexpected connections and contrasts between composers who have never rubbed shoulders before.
Their latest programme started with a real ear-opener. It’s not often that you hear a piece of contemporary classical music for the first time and rush home to see if you can find it on Spotify. But Olli Mustonen’s Nonet No 2 is something special. Introduced by the ensemble as full of youthful vim and vigour, it’s much more that. It’s a piece that lures listeners by being reassuringly classical in its approach but which happily takes risks, subverting expectations about rhythms and harmonies, smashing symmetry if the result exhilarates. And it sure did – in this performance by nine expert string players whose tightness of ensemble suggested that some sort of telepathy was going on.
In the other three works on the menu the instrumentalists were joined by soprano Ruby Hughes. Out of the Dawn’s Mind is a new work by composer Edmund Finnis, a setting of poems by Alice Oswald and specially commissioned by the Collective. The poems were beautifully presented in an illustrated booklet offered to the audience upon entering the auditorium. The words aren’t easy to digest on first acquaintance, as titles such as ‘A Rushed Account of the Dew’ and ‘Slowed -Down Blackbird’ may suggest. The effect, however, of evocative words lying on a bed of lush string tone created a deep sense of mystery about the cyclical wonders of the natural world, in all their diversity and fine detail. Ruby Hughes matched the beauty of the imagery with a pure vocal line, always sensitive to the nuances of Alice Oswald’s language.
She was also very attentive to meaning in her performance of Che si può fare by the multi-talented, early 17th composer (and virtuoso singer) Barbara Strozzi. The words she set are fairly conventional (lovesick woman who blames Cupid for torturing her etc) but the music is compelling as the singer gives voice to her anguish and suspicion that she’s being played with by the gods. Ruby Hughes’ singing tore at the heartstrings and the string band accompaniment couldn’t have been more sensitive.
The concert ended with Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations written in 1939, a song cycle of poems by the 19th century French poet Artur Rimbaud. It’s a work which matches great poetry with ideal word-setting. Rimbaud’s poems are full of fantastical imagery and Britten responds to them with consummate imagination and originality. The sequence conjures up a highly exotic world at the centre of which is a passionate love song ‘Being Beauteous’, a real test of any singer’s agility and sensitivity to words – a test which Ruby Hughes, with the help of the string players of Manchester Collective, passed with distinction.
Manchester Collective with soprano Ruby Hughes