tue 23/07/2024

Hughes, Manchester Collective, Hallé St Peter’s, Manchester review - new work and stunning singing | reviews, news & interviews

Hughes, Manchester Collective, Hallé St Peter’s, Manchester review - new work and stunning singing

Hughes, Manchester Collective, Hallé St Peter’s, Manchester review - new work and stunning singing

Edmund Finnis song cycle gets its launch with passion, anguish and consolation

What artistry is: Ruby Hughes with Manchester CollectiveChris Payne

Manchester Collective were back on home ground last night in the tour of a programme featuring the first performances of a new song cycle by Edmund Finnis, Out of the Dawn’s Mind. Soprano soloist was the amazing Ruby Hughes.

It was home ground for her, too, in a sense: as a former student at Chetham’s School of Music she’s an old friend of the Collective’s leader and artistic director, Rakhi Singh.

Ruby Hughes and the Collective created a moving and stimulating online streamed programme from the Lakeside Arts venue at the University of Nottingham in February last year – Dowland, Debussy, Mahler, Tavener and more besides. Now they’re together again and on the road, and this gig (the word Rakhi likes to use) at Hallé St Peter’s, the converted church in the heart of trendy, regenerated Ancoats in the city centre, concluded with a stunning performance of Britten’s Les Illuminations. They’re going to record the Britten and Finnis together in this venue in August, according to Ruby Hughes’ website.

Rakhi Singh leading Manchester CollectiveNine members of the otherwise 17-strong string ensemble prefaced the singing with Olli Mustonen’s Nonet No. 2, a piece that keeps making you think you’re in the classical world (a Siciliana rhythm for the second movement, rich tonal harmonies, a moto perpetuo finale) when it’s also spiced with originality. The third movement, with Rakhi Singh’s impetus (see picture), was pure energy on steroids.

Out of the Dawn’s Mind is a setting of five poems by Alice Oswald. They’re not like the kaleidoscope of imagery that was to come in Britten’s settings of Rimbaud: there are tautly and logically connected strings of metaphor and conceits that demand the mind’s attention when simply seen on the page, and Finnis’s approach more than once is to ask his soloist to intone (with occasional big leaps) them over carpets of string chording. The third one is different, written in rhyming couplets, and for that he brings more measured rhythm and a sort of free recitative over it. Ruby Hughes began the cycle as if in a trance, her power dramatically varied and a sense of the mystical emerging.

The fourth, “Shadow”, is the longest and musically their emotional peak (the accompaniment developing an argument of its own at the climax), the voice more melodically inflected, and passion, anguish and consolation each wonderfully expressed by the soloist: her pianissimo at the close – “amazed” – was something to die for. The final setting makes a dying fall, as if with bated breath and gasps of vocal tone, and it ends as clashing lines melt into a unison.

Ruby Hughes has the ability to live the emotions of what she sings, while using eloquent gesture and engaging your mind by her technical finesse and precision. Her party piece began the second half: Barbara Strozzi’s song “Che si può fare” (artfully and quite romantically arranged for strings by Fred Thomas), which makes a thing of beauty out of expressions of utter misery. She delivered it with moving expertise – that’s what artistry is.

Then it was Les Illuminations. Its settings are like little multi-faceted gems, and she brought a new voice quality to every emotion: varied in power from a whisper to blistering top notes, gentle, wistful, sad and even bitter and outraged in “Parade”, and finally resigned with a quiet dignity for “Départ”. The band may have to work a bit on intonation of the upper strings in one or two spots before they do the recording, but the fact that they (almost!) held the silence at the end for a very long time before the applause broke out was testimony to the effectiveness of the whole thing.

Manchester Collective have just published their plans for 2022-23 – another season of remarkably varied programming and adventurous ideas. They’re certainly not resting on their laurels.

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