CLASSICAL MUSIC / Scarpia: Not so tender is the North: The orchestral see-saw and chamber music in Liverpool and Manchester

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Orchestral concert-going in the North-west has its share of ups and downs. Five years ago, who would have thought that the Halle would soon boast a rising international star like Kent Nagano as its music director, plus a management (spearheaded by the incoming chief executive, David Richardson) with as much vision for the orchestra's future as respect for its past and concern for its present? And who would have thought that the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, having just made the inspired appointment of Libor Pesek, would find its resurgence threatened by the defection of the entire management team (widely put down to the arrival of Robert Creech as chief executive)?

Pesek has announced his intention to step down as music director of the RLPO from September 1994, not so much out of disaffection as from a feeling that the orchestra is ready for new ideas. He will be a hard act to follow: under his guidance the RLPO has developed a caring and cultured brand of music-making which, helped by its recordings for Virgin Classics, has dramatically raised its national standing. The Czech connection has brought international honour, too - in a week or so's time the orchestra will play Smetana's Ma vlast in Prague, the first foreigners ever to open the Prague Spring Festival.

The performance they are taking with them, and which they played in the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool last Saturday, is a masterly one in its pacing and characterisation, inspiring in its phrasing and vigour - on a par, in fact, with the Halle's exceptional account of Strauss's Alpine Symphony under Gunther Herbig, two days earlier in Manchester. Here was a curious coincidence - two massive late- Romantic topographical tone poems, conducted by heart (and from the heart) by widely respected musicians of central European upbringing.

Herbig was the man who brought a touch of international class to the BBC Philharmonic in his years as its principal guest conductor. Like Pesek, his economy and precision of technique are consummate; like the RLPO, the Halle played here with a corresponding subtlety and distinction. The difference is that where Liverpool these days feels like something of a holding operation, the Halle give the unmistakable impression of being on the way to new heights.

Down the road from the dismal and none-too-soon to be supplanted Free Trade Hall, Manchester's Royal Northern College of Music continues to be a life-saver. One of the country's most prestigious and consistently successful training-grounds for musicians, it doubles as a multi-purpose arts centre. The main concert hall is acoustically much improved since its opening 21 years ago, and if it is still rather claustrophobic for a full orchestra (the BBC Philharmonic performs its more adventurous programmes there) it remains the most natural venue for the city's chamber concerts, recitals and much besides.

The Brazilian pianist Arnaldo Cohen has been a welcome enlivening factor at the college in recent years - as Broadwood Fellow in Piano Studies he gives regular master-classes and recitals. His latest appearance was hampered by back pain, but no one would have guessed that from the solidity of his Bach-Busoni Chaconne or the brilliance of his Prokofiev Sonata No 7. These, like his Bach B flat Partita, confirmed the impression gained from his recordings that here is a musician with an uncommon blend of strengths - fingers, temperament and intellect all equally distinguished.

The RNCM also hosted the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Goldberg Ensemble. This group, based on an elite corps of a dozen strings, has managed to sustain a dual commitment - to contemporary repertoire, especially British composers, and to an international standard of technical finish in more familiar works. This commitment was summed up in two evening concerts. The contemporary programme was particularly well devised. At the still point of the turning world . . . by a more-than-promising RNCM student, Mark Hewitt, was a well-heard and communicative piece. It would not have disgraced a fellow T S Eliot fan, the much-feted Sofia Gubaidulina. Piers Hellawell's Memorial Cairns began in fast-Tippett vein and ended in quiet smoky chords and a haunting atmosphere, finally banishing all thoughts of stylistic influence.

Stylistic influence was all too plain to hear in Paul Patterson's determinedly middle-of-the-road Violin Concerto (with nods to Walton and Shostakovich among others). Beginning in effect with a prelude and ending with a scherzo, Patterson's work ducks most of the more interesting issues in concerto writing, and offers little to compensate beyond a congenial medium for the virtuosity of the Goldberg Ensemble's leader, the prodigiously energetic Malcolm Layfield. Barry Guy's Flagwalk, a double- bass concerto in all but name, proved a vastly more telling and poetic piece, despite some awkward structural joins and a sense that ideas this good might have had more made of them.