Manchester Classical Music: The Best Performances of 2018

Robert Beale, 22 Dec 2018, Manchester Classical Music

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 Orchestraeach 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 Passionat the Stoller Hall – not strictly an opera performance but not merely a concert one either, and in conception and execution completely absorbing and moving.