It was time for a Prom that was properly different: five pieces of music (plus an encore) written between 1965 and 2019, each from a different composer and all of them being performed for the first time at the Proms, with a line up comprising harpsichord, small string orchestra and occasional percussion.

Rakhi Singh, Mahan Esfahani and The Manchester Collective
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

“String orchestra” doesn’t quite describe it: the 18 musicians of Manchester Collective, led from the violin by Rakhi Singh and making their Proms debut, behave and sound more like an oversized chamber group than a conventional orchestra. The tightness of playing was pin-sharp in every work and they’re not frightened of using light amplification: in a Proms season where just about everyone, including myself, has complained about lack of orchestral oomph in the hall, there were no such complaints here.

Each half opened with a romp. Henryk Górecki’s 1980 Harpsichord Concerto starts with strings doing a passable simulation of a church organ. Much as Brahms’ violin concerto has been described as a “concerto for violin against orchestra”, the first movement of the Górecki is a kind of “concerto for harpsichord against orchestra”, with Mahan Esfahani playing an increasingly manic set of harpsichord figures in an apparently desperate attempt to be heard against a solid wall of string sound. Then, for the second movement, the mood turns on its head from antagonistic to collaborative and from portentous to fun: soloist and orchestra exchange themes in dance rhythms that become almost bucolic. You could let your imagination run riot: have the villagers spilled out from church into a giant knees-up?

Mahan Esfahani
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The second half opener, Dobrinka Tabakova’s Suite in Old Style, provided just as rich entertainment while being about as different from the Górecki as it is possible to be. Just before the house lights dim, we hear drum beats which mark the start of what is unmistakably a renaissance or baroque march (with Esfahani switching from harpsichord to tambourine). The piece is a tribute to Rameau (it’s subtitled The Court Jester Amareu) and we are transported to the genteel world of 18th century nobility with music that’s somewhere between modern folk, renaissance pastiche and a virtuoso vehicle for violist Ruth Gibson. Then we snap out of pastiche into an edgier passage where the violist and orchestra truly swing together. The second movement provides dreamy lushness in a chord progression that’s never predictable but always sure-footed; the third is a fast 12-time dance with a touch of the Brandenburgs about it and deft touches on the harpsichord. The ending shifts back to the opening fanfare in exhilarating fashion.

Three other pieces are more reflective: although also very varied, all have the stamp of minimalism to produce a hypnotic, trance-like effect by insistent repetition, the most successful being a piece written for The Manchester Collective, Edmund Finnis’s The Centre is Everywhere. The beginning is almost pink noise in the high register of the strings; much in the way of African music, fragments of harmony and melody begin to emerge, swell and combine with each other. The music becomes rich and spiritual before fading back into the noise from which it started – an ecstatic experience.

The Manchester Collective
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

I would have enjoyed Julius Eastman’s The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc more if it had been half the length: I’m perfectly happy to go with minimalist insistence and there was a fun rock-music-based beginning, but there wasn’t enough variety to hold my attention and once you lose the thread in that kind of piece, it becomes very hard to regain one’s involvement. With Joseph Horovitz’s 1965 Jazz Harpsichord Concerto, I never really got the thread in the first place: the trio of harpsichord, double bass and drum kit never persuaded me that they could achieve the swing and lift that are the hallmarks of jazz, making the whole thing one of those well-intentioned crossover pieces that seeks to bridge two genres but falls in the gaps between them. The encore, however, Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa, displayed minimalism at its best, with fast, exciting playing of an entrancing chord progression.

Manchester Collective CEO Adam Szabo gave good humoured and interesting introductions to the music, and for a concert of works that were all new to me, four out of six big successes and two near misses is a pretty fantastic hit rate. The playing was incisive and lively all evening and, as Szabo put it, it’s great to have music at the Proms by female and non-dead people. More like this one, please, BBC.

****1