Monday 12 July 2021

Manchester Collective premiere the new string quartet from Edmund Finnis, one of the curators of this year's Spitalfields Music Festival

Edmund Finnis
Edmund Finnis

Edmund Finnis, Mica Levi, Philip Glass, Stravinsky; Manchester Collective; Spitalfields Music Festival at Christ Church, Spitalfields

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 July 2021
Last-minute changes to the line-up fail to disrupt a terrific evening of fine music making including the premiere of a new quartet by one of the curators of this year's festival

The Manchester Collective's concert at Christ Church, Spitalfields on Saturday 10 July 2021 at part of the Spitalfieds Music Festival centred on the premiere of Edmund Finnis' String quartet no. 2. Finnis is a composer with whom the ensemble has a strong association (he is one of this year's curators at the festival and a close artistic collaborator of the ensemble, which commisioned The Centre is Everywhere from him), yet the concert had a number of intriguing elements, some planned and some unplanned. The ensemble's appearance at the church represented a change from its usual exploration of non-traditional spaces, so that many of their London appearances have been at the CLF Art Cafe in Peckham. They were playing a programme curated by composer Edmund Finnis, whereas they usually play programmes they have created/curated themselves. So much for the planned elements.

A week before the concert, many of the leading performers in the Manchester Collective had to self-isolate (they are all OK, but have just been exposed to someone with COVID), hence the line-up of players in the quartet had to change radically. We lost the Ligeti Cello Sonata from the programme, but apart from that, this challenging programme went ahead and frankly, if we hadn't been told the details I am not sure we would have noticed, such was the strength of the performance.

The focus of the Manchester Collective's concert at the Spitalfields Music Festival was the premiere of Edmund Finnis' String Quartet No. 2, and around this Finnis had selected a group of works that he loves, by composers who all have distinctive musical personalities. So there was Philip Glass' String Quartet No. 2 (Company), Stravinsky's Three Pieces for String Quartet, Mica Levi's You Belong to Me, Finnis' Sister (the first piece of his performed by the Manchester Collective) and ending with the premiere of his String Quartet No. 2.

There was an element of innocent ear about the first part of the programme, as the printed order did not correspond to that played. But Philip Glass' sound-world and techniques are so distinctive that his String Quartet No. 2 (written in 1983) was immediately apparent. Four contrasting movements, each made up of a selection of motifs with which Glass creates multiple of apparently independent layers. By turns meditative and vigorous, the music was made more engaging by the way each player brought a different quality, a different independence of spirit to their part yet the whole drew together.

Stravinsky's Three Pieces for String Quartet (written in 1914, revised in 1918, published in 1922) came as something of a shock after the Glass, and at first I wondered if this could be Stravinsky. The piece is unusual in that Stravinsky was not writing for the four instruments as a classical string quartet, but simply as four instrumentalists who happen to be playing together, and the ensemble's approach was very visceral, making the music sound modern. The vivid first movement came over as something of a demented Scots Reel, with the players really going for it.  The second movement was full of vigorous textures and hints of more popular styles, this is the movement reputedly inspired by Stravinsky's admiration for the music hall artist Little Tich. The we ended with something intense, serious and rather magical.

Edmund Finnis explained that Sister, his duet for violin and cello from 2012, was written as part of a workshop/residency where he was expected to write a new piece every day, which meant there was no time to worry and fret, the piece had to be written. The result was rather touching, and full of intriguing sounds and textures.

Mica Levi and Edmund Finnis studied together at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, so it was appropriate that the next piece in the programme was Levi's You Belong to Me. Levi is a singer, songwriter, composer and producer and their output encompasses music for the London Philharmonic Orchestra and songs for their band. You Belong to Me proved to be an exploration of strong moments, with Levi juxtaposing different elements to striking effect. So that we opened with the three upper strings performing vivid trills, then the cello joined to create another strong texture, then after changes in timbre and more, the group put the two different elements together to complex and dazzling effect. The whole piece was a juxtaposition of strongly characterised elements, including a striking cello solo towards the end of the work.

Finally came the premiere of Edmund Finnis' String Quartet No. 2, following on from his String Quartet No. 1 - ‘Aloysius’ from 2018. The new work felt like an exploration of heterophony, the first movement had not quite canonic violins over repeated figures in the lower strings, creating the feeling of multiple things happening at once. This continued in the folk-inspired second movement with the three upper strings seeming to explore different takes on the same materials. The intriguing third movement moved from the eerie to an almost Romantic use of some of the material, whilst the fourth movement returned us to the the first movement yet with the material seen in a new light.

Finnis has an easy way with writing for strings and writing for string quartet as a classical ensemble, rather than four people who happen to be playing together. It was intriguing to hear other works which he felt went with the quartet, and I would have liked more information about the background to the new quartet (the programme very much presented the music as found objects, without a printed programme, though Finnis did give a short spoken introduction).

This was a remarkable evening, assembled under challenging circumstances yet giving little hint of that, apart perhaps from a certain concentrated intensity in the performance, in the music. Finnis has a distinctive way with the string quartet, and I do hope that other ensembles take up the challenge and certainly hope that Manchester Collective's original line-up for the evening gets a chance to play it.

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