It's a warm night at The Sheldonian on the last day of the University year. There are revellers thronging the streets, some of them audible at still moments within the venue. Maxim Vengerov, once upon a time a child of almost Mozartian precocity, is gracing us as soloist in the little-heard original version of Sibelius' Violin Concerto (conductor Marios Papadopoulos) before himself conducting Berlioz's sprawling masterpiece, the Symphonie Fantastique.
This 1903 version of the concerto contains five to seven minutes of music that's excised from the well-known revised edition of 1905 - and one sees why Sibelius was moved to rummage in his study drawer for the scissors. The solo part, correctly described in the programme as comprising 'musings', is low-key throughout, especially in the first long - overlong - cadenza in which movement is circular rather than progressive. One of the familiar Sibelian traits in his symphonies - the 2nd, 5th and 7th especially - of an inexorable build-up of tension that's dissipated now at a stroke, now gradually, appears again here, but this time the elaborately shimmering strings somehow hamper the effective establishment of tension in the first place. One doubts that this early version of the Concerto will ever displace its familiar, stripped-down progeny in public affection.
No solo encore from Mr Vengerov, mindful, no doubt, that his stamina would suffer a thorough examination after the interval with his direction of the five movements of the Symphonie Fantastique. The orchestra swelled to Mahlerian or Brucknerian proportions, nigh-on 90 strong with two harps, two tubas, a regiment of percussionists and a tubular-bell player way up in a corner of the gods. This was a tuneful, smooth rendering, with the individual sections of the orchestra kept on a tight leash as Mr Vengerov declined to allow one to climb on the shoulders of another. He never called for ugliness from the orchestra: no shrieking strings and winds, no dire thumps from the percussion and few cruel thrusts of brass. In the 2nd movement, 'The Ball', the waltz element was emphasised, while later 'The March to the Scaffold' became a resigned procession rather than a morbid festival of death. The concluding applause must have been heard the length and breadth of Broad Street, even by the self-absorbed revellers.