A string band turned the Purcell Room into a basement club – for one night only – and put on a show billed as “Places We Know”. Its travelling fans were delighted – but this interloper felt that he had inadvertently wandered into the wrong venue, and was too polite to leave. The place was enveloped in a swirling mist out of which I expected to see Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff, but I think they were scared off by the lurid lights on the stage. When the Manchester Collective appeared it looked like a group of displaced persons seeking refuge, 200 miles from home. It was obvious that this band did not wish to be confused with your average run-of-the-mill combo, and they achieved that objective with flying colours.

Manchester Collective
© Pete Woodhead

The first three pieces on their setlist were Missy Mazzoli’s You Know Me From Here, Oliver Leith’s will o wisp (a commission receiving its London premiere) and Caroline Shaw’s Plan & Elevation. Throughout the performances, a feeling of unease kept nagging at me: what was it about them that was troubling? Eventually I conceived of the idea that it was the undertow of psychobabble rippling through every bar. Having heard other examples of their work it seems to me that that these composers inhabit a world where wistful gestures and folkish rhythms combine with Hollywood harmonies and minimalist tics to produce a music that is part of the soundtrack to the fey culture beloved by so-called metropolitan elites. 

The Collective is part of that constituency and so were perfectly at home with their repertoire. They gave excellent performances of these pieces, delighting in their richly-perfumed harmonies, and moved to ecstasy by the high points of their rhythmic posturing. Taking a lead from the charismatic Rakhi Singh, it was almost as if the collective effort was not just a display of undeniable musical prowess – it could have been mistaken for the band in the throes of a religious experience. Here was music primed to accompany the scented candles of mindfulness, and the travelling fans whooped it up.

Manchester Collective
© Pete Woodhead

Like the pieces by Mazzoli and Shaw, the other work on the setlist was an arrangement of a string quartet, billed as Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony in C minor. It was the Russian master’s mighty Eighth Quartet, in the version made by Rudolf Barshai, who here was not credited for his trouble. The original quartet is a work to which has been attached a very large number of Post-it Notes giving the views of eminent musicologists, learned critics and political polemicists. I will avoid adding a sticker of my own and point you in the direction of David Fanning’s magisterial study. 

As to the Collective’s performance of the piece, it was a fantastic calling-card for the Mancunians. They traced the overall architecture with skill and insight: the playing was finely-nuanced, with some exquisite highlights of tone and colour; and the foregrounding of the solos was set at the right ‘pitch’ to the ensemble. The swagger of the waltz was simultaneously macabre and jocular, and the outbursts in the fourth movement struck home with real force. Singh led the line with assurance and flair.

In the recent allocation of funding from the Arts Council this band was one of the lucky “winners”, so I guess its radical credentials have found favour with the council’s social and political aspirations. However, it is to be hoped that their programming will progress beyond “musical psycho-geography and sonic descriptions of the psychological feeling of places…”

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