Saturday, 22 December 2018

The best performances of 2018

So what were the stand-out performances of 2018 in Manchester and the North West? Here’s a personal selection.

Buxton Festival provided some of the best experiences in opera – their production of Verdi’s early opera, Alzira, was the third to be directed for them by Elisha Moshinsky and proved a fascination, with a concision of construction and kaleidoscopic variety of mood almost akin to fast-cut movie direction. There were some thundering good tunes plus shock-horror moments from Verdi, and Stephen Barlow conducted it as his swan song, operatically, for the festival, as he left its artistic directorship this year.

Opera della Luna provided comic balance to that with a great modernization of The Daughter of the Regiment (Donizetti). Who would have thought it would translate to the world of a desert-based Harley-riding biker gang in California, USA? They had a tenor with all the top Cs, too, in Jesús Álvarez.

And the festival offering from early music specialists La Serenissima was Tisbe – the story we know better from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as Pyramus and Thisbe – by Giuseppe Antonio Brescianello. It was a most lamentable comedy … or should that be comical lament … in Mark Burns’ production, full of inventiveness and humour.

That’s not to discount the sheer heavyweight brilliance of Opera North. New productions that came our way this year included one of Un Ballo in Maschera (Verdi), where Tim Albery’s direction let the music do the histrionics (and it did under Richard Farnes’ baton), and a new Tosca (Puccini), where Giselle Allen made the heroine both an extrovert and insecure beneath it – so her jealousy was a weakness and fully part of her personality – in masterly style.

I should also mention Clonter Opera’s La Bohème, with its very talented young stars-in-the-making and a clever production by Harry Fehr; the Royal Northern College of Music’s Hansel and Gretel, in which designer Yannis Thavoris achieved several remarkable coups de theatre; and the premiere of Adam Gorb’s outstanding theatre work, The Path to Heaven, with libretto by Ben Kaye, a kind of opera documentary on true stories from the Holocaust.

This was the year in which the BBC Philharmonic said goodbye to one chief conductor – Juanjo Mena – with a fiesta of Spanish music, and introduced us to his successor – Omer Meir Welber (albeit that he doesn’t start officially until next summer) – with an hour of Wagner in October.

The Philharmonic’s spring programmes included the world premiere of Mark Simpson’s new Cello concerto, played by Leonard Elschenbroich with skill and passion under the baton of Clemens Schuld, a work I think may find a permanent niche.

And there were two exciting events in two days at the still-new Stoller Hall in Chetham’s School of Music, as contemporary music group Psappha and the more middle-of-the-road Northern Chamber Orchestra each opened their autumn season quite memorably: in Psappha’s case with Kurtág’s Scenes from a Novel, performed by Gillian Keith with film of dancer Rosanna Reberio, making it as much music theatre as concert; and in the NCO’s case with Freddy Kempf playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3, which lit up the evening.

Three other concerts made 2018 a special year for me: Manchester Collective’s June outing at the Stoller Hall, which included Kurtag, Cage, Prokoviev, Janáček, Pärt and Messiaen and showed how to do imaginative programming and advocacy for the unusual combined with top quality musicianship; the lively, community-linked Manchester Peace Song Cycle, heard at the RNCM and written by a team of women composers inspired by Caroline Clegg to tell the story of Heaton Park in war and peace; and English Touring Opera’s St Matthew Passion at the Stoller Hall – not strictly an opera performance but not merely a concert one either, and in conception and execution completely absorbing and moving.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

My best CDs of 2018

Still looking for a Christmas present for the music lover in your life? Here are a few CD recordings that came my way this year and which I can heartily recommend:

Wagner: Das Rheingold (Soloists, Hallé Orchestra, conducted by Sir Mark Elder: Hallé HLD 7549, 3 CDs).

Issued earlier this year, the recording of Sir Mark and the Hallé’s Bridgewater Hall performance from late 2016 is the third in their complete Ring cycle – Siegfried was performed and recorded in June, so the whole set is now in the can.

I was in the hall that November night and I can tell you it was fantastic. It was a magisterial account of the score – done in one continuous take of two-and-three-quarter hours – with some beautifully characterised accounts of individual roles, opulent orchestral sound, smoothness and precision from the strings led by Lyn Fletcher, and resplendent brass.

(There was much more to it than that, as this performance was effectively semi-staged, but only those who were there will have had its benefit – never mind: the sound alone is brilliant). The line-up was enviable and full of character: Sarah Tynan, Madeleine Shaw and Leah Marian-Jones as the Rhinemaidens, Samuel Youn as Alberich, Iain Paterson as Wotan (interestingly self-aware at first, but growing in grandeur), a regal Susan Bickley as Fricka, Reinhard Hagen an appealingly naïve Fasolt and Clive Bayley his meaner, nastier brother, Will Hartmann an intriguing, near-lyrical Loge, and Susanne Resmark almost other-worldly in the richness and fullness of her Erda, among them.

Loder: Raymond and Agnes (Soloists, Royal Ballet Sinfonia, conducted by Richard Bonynge: Retrospect Opera RO005, 2 CDs).

I wrote about this recording when it appeared in August, and it should be a must for all students of Manchester’s musical history and our English operatic past. The Theatre Royal in Peter Street – long closed for stage performances – was for many years the city’s home for top-class drama and opera, and in 1854 Charles Hallé collaborated with the composer and conductor Edward Loder on one of the most ambitious opera seasons the city has ever known, before or since. They gathered a company of top international operatic singers, and Loder brought to completion the opera that has since been described as his ‘masterpiece’ – Raymond and Agnes. It’s a Romantic work in ‘gothic’ style, and Loder thought he was writing for soloists of exceptional gifts (sadly, its premiere was delayed until summer 1855, and a much weaker cast was then the best available).

But Raymond and Agnes is still the only serious opera of real merit ever to have been composed, rehearsed and premiered in the North West of England, and Loder at his best is a very good dramatic composer indeed. This complete recording is of the later London version – the only one whose score survives – but there’s some remarkable music in it.

Elgar: The Wand of Youth suites, Salut D’Amour, Nursery Suite, Chanson de Nuit (Hallé Orchestra, conducted by Sir Mark Elder: Hallé HLL 7548).

This is a little gem of a disc. The pieces are Elgar in light-weight mood, but often with touches of the depth and imagination found in his bigger, more serious music, and in The Wand of Youth suites, and even the Nursery Suite, you hear echoes of the atmospheres of some of the Enigma Variations, and other works. The Hallé play superbly and charmingly, with Sir Mark Elder adept at drawing every beauty from the scores, and you couldn’t look for anything better for some relaxed post-Christmas enjoyment.

Alan Rawsthorne: Woodwind concertos and chamber works (Linda Merrick, Jill Crowther, Manchester Sinfonia conducted by Richard Howarth, English Northern Philharmonia conducted by Alan Cuckston; Joseph Spooner, David Owen Norris and others, Prima Facie PFCD053).

For students of Manchester’s musical heritage (and all Haslingden-izens, where the birthplace of Alan Rawsthorne is marked by a blue plaque), this collection is a must. Part of it is a re-issue from an earlier ASC collection – the Oboe Concerto, Quartet for oboe, violin, viola and cello, and Studies on a Theme by Bach for string trio – and the first of those (written in 1947) is a lovely work (originally premiered by Evelyn Rothwell with the Hallé). The bonus now is the Clarinet Concerto, played by RNCM principal Linda Merrick, which is a pre-war composition and angst-ridden, as much of that era’s music was. Its manuscript is in the RNCM library, and there are two possible endings, as the composer recorded an alternative version to his original (with Thea King) that sounds much better and has been reconstructed: here, thanks to the wonders of technology, you can choose which you prefer. There’s also the Cello Sonata of 1948, one of his greatest pieces, and a setting of Brother James’s Air, with which it has some thematic connections, plus a two-recorders-and-lute tune written for an RSC production of Hamlet.