One hundred years after the Russian Revolution of October 1917, the Oxford Philharmonic presented a pair of major works from either side (in both senses) of that event – Rachmaninov’s evergreen concerto from the Tsarist heyday of 1901, and Shostakovich’s “Soviet artist’s response to just criticism” in his Symphony no. 5 of 1937. One is a very personal and the other a very public work, which is more or less how they were treated on this occasion.

The brilliant young Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili gave a highly individual reading of the concerto. The opening chords were conventional enough, taken at the familiar portentous plod, but then almost no-one takes much notice of the composer’s moderato or his minim = 66 (including the composer). But once into the second subject we had the first intimation of how mercurial a performer Buniatishvili can be. There was none of the usual lyrical relaxation here, but rather a passionate urgency, pressing on, and even getting ahead of the conductor momentarily. There was too a noticeably prominent left hand in this passage, making the very familiar sound very strange. There was certainly some thrilling playing in the lead up to the recapitulation, where again Marios Papadopoulos worked hard to keep his players in step – this is not an easy pianist to accompany! Her alla marcia passage over the return of the first theme was very broad, but stirring. There was an especially dreamy horn solo from Andrew Littlemore at the return of the second theme, before the soloist sped us into the agitated close.

The slow movement’s main theme featured some exquisite contributions from David Rix’s clarinet and Tony Robb’s flute, before Buniatishvili flew into the cadential piu animato section, growing impatient towards the climax, which brought in a superbly passionate final statement from the orchestra. The soloist opened the finale at high speed, more so perhaps than the allegro scherzando marking implies. The great B flat “big tune” was perfectly done by oboist Emily Pailthorpe and the violas, while Buniatishvili was as spontaneous as we now expected when she took up the theme, not without some softly coy ritardandi as well as more persuasive and commanding playing. The coda was splendid, the famous tune returning with a real orchestral wallop and provoking the greatest enthusiasm from a packed Sheldonian Theatre. 

After this concerto my feeling was, “I don’t know if I really like such a capricious approach, but I’d certainly like to hear it again”. But of course I can’t – for when Buniatishvili next plays it I imagine it will be quite different. There is a distinction between an interpretation, in which the key parameters have been long pondered and fixed, and a performance, in which anything can happen. Here we had more of the latter, and whatever else could be said, this score can take it. Her encore was a breakneck gallop through the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 that was frankly more express than expressive, more excitable than exciting, but technically jaw-dropping.

The Shostakovich Fifth Symphony was a considerable success. There was a less than arresting opening, the five basses and six cellos not quite able to provide the weight and bite their rising and falling minor sixths imply, but after that there was a compelling narrative line throughout, for which the conductor must take much credit, given he can rarely have much rehearsal time when his players assemble in Oxford. Again the horns and woodwinds were in good form, perhaps relishing the fact that their softest playing can really be heard at the top of this hall. The Allegretto second movement gave them all further opportunities as it did for first violin Natalia Lomeiko, whose quixotic little solo was especially characterful. The Largo is the heart of this work and was played with great heart, the divided strings playing with fine tone and sustained concentration at Papadopoulos’s ideally poised tempo. The harp and celesta added to the sense of haunted stasis, helping to make this the most moving music of the whole evening. The care for dynamics (not easy with this work in a small hall), tempo relations and cumulative tension also made the finale a fitting climax, right through to the bright splendour of the drums-and-brass-dominated close. I can’t find a single commentator who hears this mighty peroration as heralding a glorious socialist future, as I do. But what would we actually hear if not a single word had been written (or fabricated) about this piece? A question for the bars and restaurants of Oxford after the concert perhaps, and this highly convincing performance will have given plenty of impetus to those conversations.