Photography: Laura Haynes

Intimate Letters

Manchester Collective @ Buyers Club 24/3/17

Tonight’s show is called Intimate Letters, the second in Manchester Collective’s first concert series. It’s also the title of composer LEOŠ JANÁČEK’s second string quartet, inspired by his love for the younger, married Kamila Stösslová. He wrote her more than 700 letters (four of which constitute this piece), proof that the impassive faces seen in stiff collars and facial topiary in sepia prints knew as much about libido and fear of rejection as anyone who’s had texts from mates demanding emergency pints. Not for nothing do we still drink in Victorian pubs. To 21st century ears, the 1923 quartet is straight modernism – but things are never that simple. Janáček had emerged from the previous century’s Romanticism and the rich symphonic harmony of Brahms and compatriot Dvořák. However, his brand of Czech nationalism went back to the earth, drawing on drones and the sawing fiddles of folk music, which predated Classical harmony and didn’t follow its rules. The next generation – Stravinsky, Bartόk – were the card-carrying modernists, but Janáček made the way straight (or crooked) for them.

The quartet also reaches the extremes of tenderness with the third ‘letter’, possibly a lullaby to the child the composer hoped Stösslová would bear him (this degree of attachment was encouraged in the Romantic era. Blame Goethe). It takes real versatility for the players to move from the outer movements’ aggressive stabbing to stillness and sweetness. Manchester Collective play out of their skin tonight; special mention goes to violist Lisa Bucknell. One of Janáček’s traits is motives which end abruptly. They might be irregular in length, or have a rogue element, like the end of tonight’s piece – three of the players strike three perfectly consonant chords. The first violin (the composer, perhaps?) persists in dissonance.

“Classical music is often very serious. Is it OK to have a giggle? Yes, it is.”

Australian composer HUW BELLING has been commissioned to set the words of Anthony Burgess to music for the author’s centenary this year. The monodrama is delivered perfectly by Paris-based baritone MITCH RILEY, who makes a strong case for the idea that, supreme musicianship notwithstanding (he isn’t using a score), the classical singer is really a highly specialised kind of actor. Inside Mr Enderby requires Riley to sing various rôles – “Emperor and pope and pantomime dame” – effortlessly switching between falsetto and darkest chest voice, and using his whole body to play the unsanitary suffering of struggling Enderby, who writes bad poetry but doesn’t know it. Burgess himself wrote verse, though it’s usually listed after his novels, essays, screenplays, and compositions if mentioned at all. His best poetry is in his prose, set to music so naturally by Belling that with Riley’s perfect diction the effect is improvisatory; a sincere account of a dyspeptic’s innermost feelings. The operas of Benjamin Britten come to mind, but is it a melodic similarity or just two composers with a gift for setting the English language and keeping it vernacular? It’s clearly contemporary, even with quotations from Bach, but it doesn’t pull up the drawbridge on its audience. As Adam Szabo, on cello, says in his preamble, “Classical music is often very serious. Is it OK to have a giggle? Yes, it is.”

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