Shostakovich's 5th symphony is a work of great power, great variety and uncertain meaning. Written in 1937 when the composer was in fear for his life after Stalin's violent reaction to his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, there is no way of knowing for sure the extent to which the music is infused by irony or pain. If there was irony, Stalin didn't spot it. As a result, different conductors can approach the work very differently. As Edward Gardner, last night's conductor, puts it: "you have to make decisions about this piece in almost every bar".

Jillian Edelstein Camera Press London
Jillian Edelstein Camera Press London

Under Gardner's baton, the BBC Symphony Orchestra certainly gave an individual reading. Where many conductors start the symphony with high tension from the very first bar, Gardner chose a more gentle opening, ratcheting up the tension and destroying the calm as the movement progresses. I thought the second movement was the strongest: the heavy-footed and increasingly manic dance put me firmly in mind of a dance with the devil. After a third movement which is calming but full of invention, Gardner played the powerful fourth with much of the "party rally" feel which was undoubtedly aimed at leaving Stalin happy: if there was irony here, it was carefully hidden.

The performance may not have reached the heights of the Dudamel performance I saw in 2008 (see review) but it was thoroughly creditable, and this is a work I'd be happy to see again and again under different conductors.

The Shostakovich was preceded by a varied first half. First was Arvo Pärt's marvellous Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten for strings and bell. The piece is exceptional for its combination of power and simplicity: the whole thing is based around a descending A minor scale with the sound filled out by multi-part harmonies, and the tolling of a funereal bell on off-beats giving a feel of pain at the out-of-place intrusion of an untimely death. This was followed by Britten's own Four Sea Interludes from 'Peter Grimes': the tolling bell and the A minor scale matched the Pärt piece well, and the orchestra did a good job of conjuring up the many different moods that Britten evokes.

The first half closed with rising star violinist Alina Ibragimova playing a new concerto by Huw Watkins. Ibragimova gave a bravura performance of great virtuosity, but I'm afraid I struggled with the work as a whole. Watkins is billed as a "lyrical" composer and there were certainly moments of great melody and lyricism, but I frequently found the orchestration fragmented and difficult to follow. Part of this was a question of balance: staccato notes on the brass overwhelmed the underlying string passages rather than complementing them (although it's difficult to blame the orchestra too harshly given that the Albert Hall is a fearfully difficult place in which to get the balance right). Ibragimova gave an encore of the finale of the Partita that Watkins wrote for her in 2006 - another fine exhibition of outstanding technique.

All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable evening.