It's not everyday that either Bartók or Shostakovich feature in the orchestral concert, let alone together, without some reward attached - a little light Beethoven or Mozart, for example. For the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in particular, this style of programming is the exception rather than the norm. But in the hands of the right musicians, the repertoire of these two giants of the early 20th-century stands up for itself easily, with easily enough contrast in temperament and idiom between the two to offset any concerns of 'heaviness' in programming.

Alina Ibragimova © Eva Vermandel
Alina Ibragimova
© Eva Vermandel

Having read all the hype about Russian-British violinist Alina Ibragimova, but missed her Beethoven cycle with pianist Cédric Tiberghien, it was an enlightening experience to finally witness her musicianship on the live stage, and it is entirely to her credit for setting the tone and the standard of the evening from the first note. No superlatives can depict with justice her suitability to conveying the dramatic sophistication of Bartók's Second Violin Concerto, and her absolute mastery of its technical challenges allowing the drama to unfold without interruption. From barbaric, violent aggression (the violin was positively growling) to feather-like delicacy, Ibragimova was entirely committed to each change of character and mood, all the while landing every note and double-stop as if it were impossible to do otherwise. The Allegro non troppo in particular was relentless with energy and pitch perfect, at least to this mortal's ears, but the remaining movements were also outstanding. What particular impressed, amongst all these qualities, was this soloist's complete sublimation into the role of the archetypal gypsy violinist, uninhibited yet refined, emotionally charged yet free of affectation. 

Following interval, Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša led the MSO through another musical masterstroke of early modernity, Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, which like many other works composed during the Stalinist era is a hotbed for historical and interpretative debate. Hrůša's take on the symphony is an expansive one, and his bold insistence on what might be described as Brucknerian pacing (read: slow) is commendable, even if the downsides of this approach might have counteracted some of the benefits. For the most part, he was able to keep the orchestra on a tight leash, resisting its urges to surge ahead, and this resulted in an effective balance of restlessness, sarcasm and dread, but also a few not totally convincing moments. The second movement Allegretto, in the meter of a waltz, was void of dace momentum and lilt, a hollow ceremony of celebrating ghosts. It is an effective interpretative gesture within the context of performance as historical commentary, but on its own terms, could risk becoming stolid. 

It's a wonder with so many emotional ambiguities infused between the musical lines, particularly the short-lived nature of the march that begins the Allegro ma non troppo finale, that Shostakovich got away with state approval, let alone a forty-minute ovation, as the programme notes attest. But the Fifth Symphony is such a versatile canvas for so many different readings, and therein lies its ultimate legacy. On this occasion of hearing the work's dubious concluding fanfare – perhaps in light of the recent domestic and international political climate – the similarly unreliable ending of Orwell's 1984 came to my mind: "O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! [...] But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother."