If before this evening I was disappointed in my failure to attend a Manchester Collective event since the group’s inception a couple of years ago, this account of Bach's great Goldberg Variations, arranged for string trio, left me feeling I’d almost certainly missed something quite special in those two years.

Cellist Bartholomew LaFollette, playing as part of the Manchester Collective © courtesy of Manchester Collective
Cellist Bartholomew LaFollette, playing as part of the Manchester Collective
© courtesy of Manchester Collective

It was clarified before the show that this would probably be the Collective’s most strait-laced event to date, focussing purely on the music and without any extraneous noise. With the audience seated on stage in an arc around the three musicians, this was an exceptionally intimate evening even by the cosy Stoller Hall’s standards. Before starting to play, music director and violinist Rakhi Singh gave an honest and entertaining introduction to the music which above all conveyed a passionate enthusiasm for Bach’s writing and struck just the right balance of being informative without becoming patronising. Interspersed with illustrative examples from the score, it instantly forged an affable connection between musicians and audience. With lamps, sofas and a Persian rug on stage, the sense of informality coupled with the profundity of the music made for a wonderful, if unusual, atmosphere.

Quite apart from its presentation, this concert would have been a memorable success even if the musicians had followed the traditional walk on, play, walk off protocol. Performing the Variations in Dmitry Sitkovetsky's arrangement for violin (Rakhi Singh), viola (Ruth Gibson) and cello (Bartholomew La Follette) necessitated a great deal of engagement between players in order to avoid any loss of the unity afforded by the keyboard original. As the music unfolded, though, there was a tangible sense of enjoyment and heavy emotional investment in the music from all three. Every facet of Bach’s writing was realised, whether in ebullient high spirits and dazzling semiquaver passages or tranquil stillness. There was a sense of compelling narrative arc in the music (was it really 90 minutes?) with each variation taking its place in the context of the whole piece. A five-minute comfort break halfway through barely disturbed the journey.

With the musicians’ facial expressions as readable as the brand of their trainers from such close quarters, each one seemed to bring unique personality to the music. The softness of the viola playing, ending phrases with little more than a breath of sound, made for some magical moments. All three played with warm, rich sound with ample vibrato, though the few passages where vibrato was momentarily shelved were all the more striking for this.

A pleasing reflective silence followed the somnolent darkness of the last pages of the music. This was a superbly realised concert, presented with unfailing warmth. It was telling that a German couple in the audience, holidaying in Manchester, framed the Collective in the same esteemed bracket as the Manchester Camerata, BBC Philharmonic and Hallé: unique in what they do, and a rich addition to the city’s cultural life.

****1