MUSIC / Look North and listen: David Fanning on new music in Manchester and an American premiere in Liverpool

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The Independent Culture
More than 40 years ago now a group of Manchester composers began to jostle British music into the modern age. That pioneer spirit - with Birtwistle, Goehr and Maxwell Davies in the vanguard - may have been a one-off, but nowadays there is still enough energy and innovation around to make a month-long festival of Manchester composers something more than a historical exercise. And there is a spirit of collaboration among the city's professional music-making bodies, led by the BBC, that made Northern Lights a celebration to be proud of.

With the arrival of John Casken as professor in 1991, a new triumvirate has taken shape at the University music department, comprising Casken, Anthony Gilbert and Geoffrey Poole. Gilbert was represented not by his poetically evocative Indian- and Australian-influenced music but by more intransigent early works such as the Little Piano Pieces and the wind and percussion Brighton Piece. Outstanding performances of these by Peter Lawson and the Royal Northern College of Music Wind Ensemble under Timothy Reynish highlighted their craggy strengths. As composition tutor at the RNCM, Gilbert has fostered the likes of Simon Holt and Martin Butler: their wind ensemble pieces, Mirrormaze and From an Antique Land, testified as much to Gilbert's rigorous guidance as to their own prodigious talents.

If Gilbert has mellowed over the years, Poole has pursued an engagingly zigzag path, alighting on some delightful avenues of inspiration on the way. His Ten, an outraged response to urban events in 1981, was the highlight of Peter Lawson's masterful BBC recital, while his choral cycle And It's Spring stole the the show in an equally virtuosic BBC Singers programme. Music of such imaginative poise and wit, so constantly surprising yet so constantly right, is rare indeed.

Casken himself had a major premiere in the shape of his Second String Quartet. This four-movement work looks the classical model full in the face. At the same time its metabolic rate is typically rapid and there is not a trace of opportunism or audience-massaging in its harmonic language. The Lindsay Quartet's energetic reading was well received; this piece may well point the way to a new phase of expressive directness in Casken's work.

Orchestral music got a look-in. The University Symphony Orchestra offered Metamorphosis / Dance, one of Goehr's very finest works and certainly one that deserves repertoire status; the Halle mounted Birtwistle's The Triumph of Time, which very nearly has that status; and the BBC Philharmonic had its associate composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies on hand for three concerts, including one of his most successful recent works, the Strathclyde Concerto No 2 for cello (eloquently delivered by Ralph Kirshbaum), and the Second Suite from his Caroline Mathilde ballet, which sits somewhat oddly between his densely woven 1980s style and the manic pasticheur of old.

All this, and still a sense of untapped resources - no Ronald Stevenson or John Foulds, for instance, among well-known one-time Mancunians. If the will and the administrative energy are there, Northern Lights could easily become a rewarding regular event.

Meanwhile in Liverpool, the RLPO introduced an intriguing novelty in the Second Piano Concerto of the young American composer-pianist Lowell Liebermann. Very much a pianist's concerto - it was given a coruscating performance by Stephen Hough - this big-hearted four-movement extravaganza dared to climb on the shoulders of Rachmaninov, Ravel and Prokofiev, and on the whole managed to keep its balance. If there were times when the ideas seemed to be inordinately stretched and padded out, there were many more when the sheer energy and enthusiasm of the writing were hard to resist.