As a seasoned concertgoer, I find it increasingly difficult to listen to popular works like Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony with fresh ears. But happily, on this occasion, the joint orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) and Tokyo Geidai (Tokyo University of the Arts) performed it with such enthusiasm and youthful energy that it made me sit up in my seat and listen attentively.

Trevor Pinnock © Simon Jay Price
Trevor Pinnock
© Simon Jay Price

The concert, given in Duke’s Hall at the RAM last Thursday, was part of a collaborative project between the two music colleges, which have enjoyed a fruitful relationship over the years. Students from London and Tokyo performed in each other’s countries over a two-week period. According to conductor Trevor Pinnock, they had met in London four days before and “worked really hard together to find each other as musicians and as people”.

The programme was framed by two Beethoven works, the Overture to the Creatures of Prometheus and his ground-breaking Eroica, with Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola in the middle. The fact that the orchestra was chamber-size and also the choice of Pinnock as the conductor suggested that one of the objectives of this project was to learn to perform this repertoire in an historically informed approach. As far as I could observe, the instruments were all modern except for the classical-style timpani, but the orchestra played with less vibrato and crisper articulation. Pinnock is less of a stickler for period-style playing than someone like Norrington, so the performance wasn’t noticeably period-style, but he succeeded in instilling energy and liveliness, as well as an elegance and stylistic awareness.

The overture to Beethoven’s ballet music The Creatures of Prometheus is a short and sweet concert opener. It’s not the most performed of the composer’s overtures, but it was probably chosen because of its link (albeit indirect) to the Eroica Symphony – the theme of its final movement is taken from his Prometheus ballet music. The introductory opening chords were punchy and dynamic, and the playing in the Allegro molto was lively. The strings were well drilled and there were excellent contributions from the principal flute and oboe. Only the horns wavered a bit, but it was all over in a flash.

Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante featured Czech violinist Julie Svěcená from the RAM and viola player Yugo Inoue from Tokyo Geidai. They both played with great technical finesse and musicality and, apart from some initial intonation differences, they were very much in sync and responding sensitively to each other. What I found slightly problematic, though, was that stylistically they (especially Svěcená) didn’t always match the orchestral playing. The soloists played in a more Romantic and virtuosic style with plenty of vibrato, whereas the orchestra played with more classical phrasing and articulation and I found that a little inconsistent. Still, I suppose Pinnock’s remit didn’t extend to getting the soloists to play in a classical style. Overall, the spirited Rondo finale worked best, but the elegiac middle movement had some lovely lyrical moments too.

Students from the Royal Academy of Music and Tokyo Geidai © Simon Jay Price
Students from the Royal Academy of Music and Tokyo Geidai
© Simon Jay Price

Undoubtedly though, the highlight of the evening was the symphony. What really struck me as I was listening was that, for many in this group of young musicians, the Eroica wasn’t something they were playing for the umpteenth time. For some, it could even have been their first. One could feel that it was a journey of discovery, and I think that gave the freshness to the performance.

Pinnock conducted with a straightforward and positive approach. He’s a very sincere musician and doesn’t use exaggerated effects or drive the orchestra unduly; rather he brings out the inner energy of Beethoven’s music by shaping phrases with clarity and natural flow. The first movement was lively and articulate, and the funeral march was understated but expressive. The scherzo had a sense of urgency – there was depth in the string sound and the horn trio was excellent – and plunged attaca into the variation finale. Each variation, including the fugue, was performed with clarity, and in particular the reflective Poco andante before the Presto coda was beautifully shaped and touching. It was an invigorating performance and I hope it has been a memorable adventure for these young musicians too.