When Shostakovich wrote his Symphony no.5 in D minor in 1937, he was literally writing for his life. His opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, had just excited a deluge of vitriol from Stalin, and Shostakovich only escaped arrest and deportation because the official allocated the task was himself purged the night before.

At its Leningrad premiere, the work (subtitled “A Soviet Artist's Response to Just Criticism”) was an outstanding success with both Party and public, receiving an ovation of 40 minutes and marking Shostakovich's rehabilitation. At the Royal Festival Hall last night, the standing ovation for Gustavo Dudamel and the Philharmonia didn't quite hit the 40 minute mark, but the general intention was definitely there. It was a performance to remember for a lifetime.

An interval conversation with one of the Philharmonia players made it clear that we were in for something special. The orchestra obviously adore Dudamel in a big way, and it looks pretty reciprocal. He conducts the piece as if he were on first name terms with every individual note, and conducts the orchestra as if there is an important dialogue with the particular musicians on every phrase. It's high performance art: Dudamel's range of body language on the podium is quite extraordinary, moving from a bullfighter's strut to imploring plea to street gang's shuffle. The tremolo violin passages are accompanied by a trembling left hand, and the tutti climaxes by leaps into the air.

I'll start by confessing that the 5th was already one of my best loved pieces before the evening started. The reflective first movement has an uncanny way of leading you by the nose on the composer's emotional journey: it's done by a series of suspended chords which never quite resolve to what you're expecting, but always into some new and compelling direction. The music is certainly not conventional romantic harmony, but is none the less easy for the ear to follow. The second movement is entrancing, with its demonic waltz and infusion of ironic folk dance fragments, the third achingly beautiful, and the military finale full of ironic bombast. Under Dudamel's baton, the Philharmonia squeezed every last drop of emotional range out of every part.

At the end of the evening, comments were being heard such as “it's the best you'll ever see, and I should know: I've been coming here for 37 years”.

The Brahms Piano Concerto No.1, also in D minor, isn't exactly an insubstantial piece, but it was reduced to the status of appetizer before a more significant main course. Piotr Anderszewski played it beautifully in a very personal style, almost as if he was playing it to himself at home, humming the tunes from time to time and unaware of being stared at by three thousand people in the audience. Somehow in this, however, the interplay between piano and orchestrra was quite seamless: a difficult accomplishment in a work containing many phrases which pass from piano to orchestra and back in mid-phrase.

Anderszewski gave us an encore of one of the Bach suites (unlike the concerto and Glenn Gould, not humming this one) – a lovely treat before the fireworks of the main event.

Before going off to the L A Philharmonic next year, Dudamel is playing another four concerts in the UK, and then coming back in April with his Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela.

David Karlin