Manchester Classical Music: Manchester Collective @ Islington Mill

Robert Beale: 26 Mar 2017, Manchester Classical Music

The enterprising musicians of Manchester Collective presented a programme at Islington Mill, Salford, on Saturday night (repeated at the Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester the next day) with a new work they commissioned themselves from Huw Belling. It’s a kind of song cycle – though, as artistic director Adam Szabo pointed out before it began, almost a little dramatic piece in reality – based on Anthony Burgess’s novel, Inside Mr Enderby.

Enderby is the aspiring poet of Burgess’s imagination (but also something of a self-persona) who can only produce when sitting on the loo.

One of his life experiences is sending love letters to another man’s wife, and so it was appropriate to precede the new piece with Janáček’s ‘Intimate Letters’ string quartet (no. 2) – a glorious example of 20th century Romantic writing, albeit by an elderly organist with a crush on a girl 38 years younger than himself.

The Collective are a very good quartet indeed, and I loved the contrasts of sweetness and tenderness with the extremes they created in this music. The last pages caught a note of desperation in the passion, with an ensemble sound almost too big for the tiny space of Islington Mill.

Huw Belling’s work – reminding me of Maxwell Davies’s Mad King songs at times – was given vivid life by baritone Mitch Riley. It’s a 35-minute work and attempts to incorporate quite a lot of the contents of the book, not just the supposed poetry. Pierce Wilcox produced the text for Belling to set.

We begin with Enderby on his loo, listening to the voice of posterity – or is it his posterior? And so things go on – plenty of lavatorial humour and flatulence. We were invited to laugh out loud if we found it as funny as the novel, but I don’t think anyone did.

Perhaps it’s a bit too long: the third section introduces us to some of the characters in the story and then re-introduces Vesta Bainbridge once and the other poet, Rawcliffe, twice. When we get quotation from other composers – particularly the long transcription from Prokoviev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet – it’s not quite clear why these works or why these bits.

Other parts of the work are admirably concise, and I really liked the chaconne-like lament in the quartet’s music near the end.