Music: Getting the bit between his teeth

LPO / Welser-Mst RFH, London
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The Independent Culture
Thursday's London Philharmonic concert conducted by Franz Welser- Mst was billed as part of the South Bank's Emerging Light festival of Arvo Prt's music. Those in the audience knew better. They knew why they were there. Some from the back sneaked into empty seats nearer the front, some left after the interval, the business over. Prt was present, and got generous applause for his Third Symphony, which opened the concert. That was followed by Sibelius's Violin Concerto, Maxim Vengerov the soloist; and Vengerov got more than generous applause, he got adulation.

In his stacked-heel boots, he has the slightly spivvy air of a supercilious waiter, but the music transforms him. Eyes closed, leaning back from the waist like a soul singer, he embodies Romantic Rapture. When Sibelius allows the violin moments of silence, Vengerov stands, swaying slightly, an athlete eager to re-enter the race. Balance between hands, bow and strings is exquisite. Even the orchestral musicians watch him.

His tone is superbly clean (a 1727 Stradivarius helps), his control absolute. Although the Sibelius concerto invites extravagant manners, Vengerov plays with refinement. The odd blurred note is swept aside by his command of pace and tension. It may be a breach of etiquette to play an encore in an orchestral concert, but no one was complaining. In Ernst's Variations on The Last Rose of Summer, an immoderate morsel of 19th-century violinism, Vengerov revealed a wry humour to match his virtuosity. It seemed that at any moment he might start playing with his teeth. No doubt the strad's insurance policy forbids such frivolity.

There were other works on the programme, even if no one was too bothered. Prt's 1971 symphony bridges the epistemological break between his Sixties avant-gardism and later adorational mode. Euphonious, it still contains hints of menace, as in the first movement, when a brief theme creeps back and forth between woodwind and cellos. The music's sombre processional is repeatedly interrupted, by thunderous timpani or farty trombones, by a few startlingly kitsch moments for celesta. It is a work which, always hinting at a pictorial element, reminds us that Prt has written many film scores.

Graham Lee gave an engaging performance of Frank Martin's Ballade for trombone. As a solo instrument, the trombone can seem faintly comic. Here, pitting its wits against a piano buried deep in the orchestra, it became expressive, even soulful. Welser-Mst closed the evening with a well-managed account of Shostakovich's Sixth Symphony. The shocking disjuncture between the opening Largo and the breezy raucousness of the last two movements has engendered all manner of theorising. Here the music seemed able to stand on its own, even if its frenetic final moments almost knocked Welser- Mst off his feet.