Kings Place, February 2016
SCHOENBERG Chamber Symphony No. 1
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 3
MOZART Violin Concerto No. 5
CONDUCTOR Toby Thatcher
VIOLIN Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay
By Samuel Peter, CutCommon
In 1810, Elizabeth Brentano wrote a letter to her friend, writer and statesman Johann Goethe. In it, she attributed the following quote to Beethoven: ‘Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy, it is the wine of a new procreation, and I am Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for men and makes them drunk with the spirit’.
It is this quote from which Ensemble Eroica’s first of three concerts at London’s Kings Place takes its title. It’s a strong quote – romantic and egotistical, commanding yet flowery. Interestingly, when Elizabeth later showed Beethoven this quote, his response was: ‘Did I say that? Well, then I had a raptus!’. I suppose some embellishment is to be expected when one keeps company with 19th Century romanticists.
Similar ostentation was thankfully not in display during the pre-concert talk by conductor Toby Thatcher. Forgoing program notes in lieu of an opening address, Toby introduced the healthily filled auditorium to this evening’s collection of politically motivated works. Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 2 reflected the composer’s later-life implementation of a more tonally influenced language following his relocation to Hollywood, eschewing the atonal extremes he pioneered some 30 years before. The Eroica Symphony meanwhile, reflected the changing political environment of the 19th Century; Beethoven famously removed the initial planned dedication of the work to Napoleon on receiving the news that Napoleon had crowned himself emperor, a piece of history which sadly tends to overshadow just how challenging to this symphony was to the musical conventions of the time. Mozart’s Violin Concerto in A major was not discussed.
Toby wrapped up the pre-concert talk by acknowledging that Ensemble Eroica is a youth ensemble, and such a concession proved completely unnecessary. Ensemble Eroica’s performance was indistinguishable from that of a seasoned professional ensemble. Part of this is no doubt due to the calibre of the performers, consisting largely of students from the Royal Academy and Royal College of Music. However, certainly much of the credit is due to Toby Thatcher, a passionate on-stage figure, whose realisations of the repertoire are distinctly unique.
Ensemble Eroica navigated the Schoenberg with skill and precision, blending perfectly to realise the composer’s intricately orchestrated counterpoint before being joined on-stage by violinist Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay for Mozart’s Violin Concerto in A major. With darting eyes, a furrowed brow and a more than occasional lunge towards the string section, Visontay trod the fine line between energetic and distracting. Seeing Visontay so physically embody the lightness of the music added a unique dimension and energised an otherwise familiar piece. Nonetheless, it was the sort of performance that one could only get away with in a work by Mozart.
Ensemble Eroica closed the evening with its namesake, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3. True to form, the performance was polished and professional, with Toby showing the necessary restraint to reign in the wilder moments to carry a satisfying impact in the final movement.
And yet, it’s difficult to know what to make of the program on offer. Ensemble Eroica has enough polish and style to rival many seasoned professional outfits. However, without any real sense of vision or coherent thematic connection between pieces, the program leaves one wondering what this concert was trying to achieve. Mozart’s Concerto in A major is a popular work and arguably Mozart’s most enjoyed violin concerto. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 is hardly wanting for performances. Unfortunately, this familiarity was not forgiving and the combination on display here didn’t help to shed new light or perspective on this well trodden ground. The art of program selection is a finicky practice. Success is highly subjective, but ultimately a program has to be a reflection of the conductor’s identification with the world of musical history. Much like Beethoven’s attributed quote, Glorious Wine was entertaining but lacked authenticity. Ensemble Eroica has an incredible amount of style and polish. What is needed now is depth.
Having said that, considering the sheer volume of talent on display, spearheaded by an engaging and enthusiastic conductor, one cannot overstate the achievement of Glorious Wine. The ensemble stands out as one of the most impressive new ventures for young musicians, and with two more performances at Kings Place, and another in St Martin in the Fields scheduled for this year, they can only go from strength to strength.