On a day when Christians around the world reflect on suffering, torment and lost hope, but with the distant promise of light soon to return, the strings of Northern Sinfonia offered a programme that could serve as a secular, humanist alternative to Good Friday; music written in dark times and troubled places of 20th-century Europe, music that is at times brooding and disturbed, sadly nostalgic but which never seems to lose its hope, or faith in that distant light.

Peteris Vasks © Schott Promotion / Christopher Peter
Peteris Vasks
© Schott Promotion / Christopher Peter

The title itself comes from Pēteris Vasks’ violin concerto, which formed the heart of the programme (it was also repeated after the concert, accompanied by dancers, but I was unable to stay for this). Vasks grew up on the Baltic coast of Latvia, and makes use of Latvian folk ideas in his works, but rather than simply painting beautiful pictures of his home, Vasks uses his music to reflect on mankind’s relationship with the natural world, and cruelties that people inflict on each other and on the world around them; in a quotation from the composer in the concert programme, his intentions is to “provide food for the soul” for people who have lost their way.

The violin concerto Distant Light, played by Northern Sinfonia leader Bradley Creswick with his usual verve, opens with the soloist in the extreme upper register, so quiet as to be almost inaudible, ascending runs ending in trills that the listener has to strain to hear, before the texture slowly builds up in clean, slowly shifting harmonies. It could have been rather dull, but the clarity and poise of Northern Sinfonia’s string players created a mesmerising effect in this opening section, with occasional brusque pizzicato chords to bring us out of the trance, before the first of three elaborate cadenzas.

The central sections of the work become more lively, first with suggestions of folk tunes, and two more wild cadenzas, full of double-stopping, huge leaps and rapid repeated notes. The energy of the final cadenza was taken up by the orchestra in a short and gloriously exciting passage of chaotic improvised noise, and the return to the brightness and silence of the opening themes that came out of the chaos was deeply moving. The piece ended as it began, the solo violin disappearing into the long silence from which it had emerged.

Vasks wrote his concerto in 1996, just a few years after the end of the Soviet Union. It was preceded neatly this evening by a series of miniatures written by Prokofiev for the piano in 1915–17, just before the Russian Revolution, and performed here in an orchestration by Rudolf Barshai. Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives, inspired by a line by the Symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont, vividly evoke the spirit of the time, mixing nostalgia for a dying world with evocations of the modern industrial city and unease about the future. The opening movements were quiet and wistful; an old-fashioned dance broke into something wilder; and the final movements were shot through with worry and nervousness. Like the poetry of the era, these fragments were beautiful but unsettling, and were played exquisitely, with clear tone, and impressive unity, and there was a long, thoughtful, pause before the audience felt able to start applauding.

Bartók’s Romanian Dances, another set of miniatures from about the same time as Prokofiev’s pieces, flashed by in a whirl of stomping energy, over almost before they’d begun, and quite a contrast with the Divertimento that followed. It was written in 1939 when Bartók was paralysed creatively by depression, brought on by worries about the darkening political situation in Hungary, and about his mother’s health. A friend offered him a break in Switzerland, and a commission, and in this sanctuary he was able to compose again. The result was the Divertimento, and like the other works in the programme, its beauty lay in the contrasts between darkness and light. A colourful opening full of rhythmic interest gave way to something more sinister, and the second movement, Molto adagio, played on muted strings, was darkly brooding, building up over an insistent repeated bass line. The light returns, though, and the final movement gave Bradley Creswick another burst of fire, with some lively solo work, echoed beautifully on the cello by Louisa Tuck, and a final calm pizzicato passage closed the work.