Friday's international concert at the Sheldonian featured students from the Royal Academy of Music teaming up with visiting music students from Japan's Tokyo Gedai, a.k.a. University of the Arts, founded in 1949 and now comprising twin faculties of Fine Arts and Music. It's one of Japan's top conservatoires and has long-standing links with the RAM. Immediately after this concert the latter's chamber music orchestra was to fly to Japan for its reciprocal fortnight of recitals and concerts there, together with Trevor Pinnock, its principal Guest Conductor.
Friday's programme featured German music in the shape of Beethoven and Mozart; a heavyweight pairing that surprisingly attracted a rather sparse audience given the standard of musicianship that was expected and duly delivered from this ensemble. We began with the Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, a ballet not often performed today. I never think these musical lollipops, for that's what this was, are more than warming-up exercises for the band. Here it was a case of seven brisk opening chords, whose force and timpani involvement signalled they could only be from the pen of Beethoven, and then a hurry to the finish. One of the characteristics of the professional orchestra – and I include this one in that description – is its ability to go straight into a piece from a standing start without musical hemming and hawing, so really the purpose of these hors d'oeuvres rather escapes me.
The orchestra now shed some of its members as we moved swiftly on to Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante (K364) in which the 23-year-old composer is somewhere near his superlative best. It's one of the works which demonstrates his powers in switching from major to minor key, from joy to introspection on a sixpence. Trevor Pinnock, one of the country's foremost chamber music specialists (aged 72 now, though looking 10 years younger) immediately showed how to squeeze the last drop of juice out of young musicians. He was a darting, almost bird-like figure on his podium, a song thrush at a bird table, given to swift jabbing gestures as he brought this or that section of the orchestra into the fray. He took the opening 'allegro maestoso' at just the marked tempo. The upper strings section had begun well but slightly erred in their delicate task of producing the appropriately muted volume for some of the sotto voce passages as a contrast to the pair of oboes and ditto horns. They were a little over-subdued.
In the 'andante', Pinnock illustrated graphically the surges in power that he required to punctuate this serene essay. This movement is primarily for the very impressive soloists; violin (here the Czech player Julie Svecena) and viola (Yugo Inoue) as they articulated interjections from the oboes. The 'presto' gives march figures to the orchestra with the two soloists alternating gracefully rather than joining forces.
For Beethoven's Symphony no. 3 in E flat, the Eroica, long and novel for its day in movement structure, was played here with something resembling heroic intent, the youthful forces of the brass section combining with dramatic timpani to produce a noble effect. The famous tune at the start was given the full treatment by the conductor with thrusting arm gestures, swaying from side to side as he brought in now the first violins, now the seconds. One of the bassoon players was super-animated in this opening movement, moving his bassoon around as if he were a tenor sax player in a smoky dive of a blues club on Chicago's North Side. He was matched later on by the dexterity of Anna Kondrashina's flute-playing in the finale, playing a variation on the main theme.
The glorious 'Marche Funèbre', ever-sterner and more commanding as it went on, was delivered here with pounding crescendos as jagged violins and throbbing timpani joined the fray. This is music to be buried to; in fact, there must be a true music lover out there who in his/her will has stipulated a long burial service, perhaps in a country churchyard overlooked by a spreading chestnut tree, punctuated by this 'Marche Funèbre', Mozart's 'Requiem' and Wagner's 'Siegfried's Funeral March'. Now that would be a funeral worth travelling across many an ocean for.