A damp January evening at the Sheldonian was ignited by the passionate violin of Vadim Repin from Novosibirsk by way of Brussels and Vienna, and once upon a time a protege of Yehudi Menuhin.
Under Stalin, Dmitri Shostakovich never knew whether he was the nonpareil of Soviet music or an enemy of the state, one false note away from the Siberian Gulag. In 1948 Stalin denounced musicians, writers and scientists for "formalistic distortions and anti-democratic leanings alien to the Soviet people." Black lists were drawn up, with the name of Shostakovich at the top. Thinking discretion the better part of valour, he locked his 1st Violin Concerto away in his bureau until 1953, when, with Stalin now embalmed at the Kremlin and something of a thaw in the air, publication and performance became an option.
One of the things that always interests me about both Shostakovich and Prokofiev is to try to sense what elements in their output might derive from or hint at the peculiarly stressful conditions in which they were composed. Here we have four movements of symphonic weight, calling for everything in the violinist's technical arsenal as well as dollops of stamina; look how the long and difficult 'cadenza' ending the 'passacaglia' leads immediately to a solo at the start of the finale.
The opening 'nocturne' was played by Mr Repin as mysterious but not desolate. The interchange first with the cellos and double-basses, then with harp and the little-seen celeste, created a pleasing dialogue, though tension - nervous, politics-derived tension? - was never far away. Later, as the famous 'passacaglia' got under way, the solo part again took its cue from the cellos. The orchestra played powerfully here, almost with a sinister tone, while Mr Repin delivered the extended and exposed, song-like melody of great beauty to such effect that the audience seemed collectively to hold its breath, as if fearing to break the spell. The headlong climax done, Mr Repin was greeted by a protracted roar, the audience absolutely refusing to let him go.
The second half was Pictures at an Exhibition in the Ravel orchestrated version. It was evident from the first notes that maestro Papadopoulos wanted to give full, measured weight to the repeated promenade theme - Mussorgsky's walking through the gallery, seeking out the 10 works he might showcase in this musical tribute to the 400-strong exhibition. The sinuous melody of exhibit 2, 'Vecchio Castello', with saxophone and bassoon prominent, contrasted neatly with the magisterial tread of the 'Bydlo' (cart) and the gossipy chatter of fishwives and organ-grinders of the 'Place du Marche, Limoges'. At the last came the only misstep of the evening. Mr Papadopoulos slowed the pace for 'The Great Gate at Kiev' right down to a crawl where Mussorgsky's notation stipulates 'Allegro alla breve. Maestoso. Con grandezza'. Snappy purposefulness thus was turned into something grand all right, but also a little ponderous.