Written either side of the Second World War and each lasting around 40 minutes, the main works in this concert were complementary in almost every respect. A reinvention of the 'Romantic' violin concerto that few subsequent composers have attempted, let alone equalled, Bartók's example never ceases to fascinate through the harnessing of its high-flown lyricism and expressive variety to a formal ingenuity such as governs its progress at all levels. Something that James Ehnes evidently appreciated in what emerged as a powerfully conceived and highly cohesive interpretation.
Admittedly the first movement took a while to get going, with Ehnes outlining the thematic elements a little guardedly and Gianandrea Noseda proving fastidious if a shade passive in his directing of the orchestral part. The lead-in to the reprise saw a marked increase in tension that itself vindicated Bartók's recourse to a sonata-form trajectory, while a scintillating cadenza explained why, for all his rather circumspect manner, Ehnes is a virtuoso of the first rank. The discreet variation sequence of the slow movement was rendered eloquently though without self-indulgence, Noseda making emotional capital from the theme's orchestral refrain then proving a model of restraint, and the finale's formal visiting of the first movement brought out the attacking side of this partnership – Ehnes heightening those earlier themes here transformed and Noseda ratcheting-up tension on to an electrifying close.
Whereas Bartók fearlessly anticipates, Prokofiev looks back with sorrow and not a little anger in his Sixth Symphony – the greatest and arguably least characteristic of his major orchestral works, and one that has never quite established its central role in the repertoire. Not that the London Symphony Orchestra can be criticised for this, having given memorable accounts this past quarter-century (most notably an incandescent one with Mikhail Pletnev) and for whom the work's pivoting between searching introspection and scabrous emotion are both ready incitements to an uninhibited response.
Here again, the first movement took time to get into its stride – Noseda thoughtfully if just a little hesitantly, outlining the thematic elements of its lucid sonata design, the seismic energy of whose central development could scarcely have been predicted. Either side of this, the second theme never quite evinced the necessary remoteness, but the baleful quality of the close was not in doubt. In the Adagio Noseda rightly opted for a long-term approach, to which the LSO responded with playing of a slow-burning intensity that brought out the anguish within the opulence of the main theme as well as the wrathfulness of its introduction and coda, which latter brings the only genuine repose during the whole work. Nor was the alternation between vibrancy and ambiguity in the finale at all underplayed, its underlying rhythm generating an inexorable tension that fairly exploded in the fateful closing bars.
Opening the concert was the latest UBS-funded commission in the “Soundscapes” Pioneers' series. Manchester-based Ian Vine (born 1974) is not alone in attracting the attention of specialist performers and ensembles without so far coming into the orbit of mainstream concert-goers. Inspired by visual and installation artists, his music is yet unfailingly well-conceived in aural terms – Individual Objects picking up on Morton Feldman's mature idiom over its sparse though eventful seven minutes. As with other UBS participants, Vine will hopefully get the chance to write on a larger scale before too long.