Karl-Heinz Steffens Makes a Strong Impression with the Philharmonia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms: Arabella Steinbacher (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra/Karl-Heinz Steffens (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 27.10.2016. (RB)

Beethoven – Overture, ‘Leonore’ No.3 Op.72a
Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto in E minor Op.64
Brahms – Symphony No.2 in D major Op.73

This was the first of a series of concerts by the Philharmonia celebrating works by the German Romantics.  German conductor, Karl-Heinz Steffens, was formerly the Principal Clarinet of both the Bavarian Radio Symphony and the Berlin Philharmonic and he is now Music Director of Norwegian Opera and Ballet and the Chief Conductor of the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie.  German violinist, Arabella Steinbacher, was the soloist for the evening and she was playing on a ‘Booth’ Stradivarius.

The concert opened with Beethoven who one can argue is as much as Classicist as a Romantic.  Steffens very wisely straddled both the Classical and Romantic traditions in the third of the ‘Leonore’ Overtures.  The opening Adagio had weight and gravitas and I enjoyed some of the highly expressive wind playing.  Steffens maintained a fairly slow tempo and he held back the pace at the transition point creating an air of hushed expectancy before the strings quietly and magically ushered in Leonore’s music.  Steffens was an energetic and expressive figure on the podium and he coaxed some highly charged and exhilarating music from the Philharmonia in the faster sections of the overture.  Alistair Mackie’s off stage trumpet call signalling Florestan’s rescue lead to an adrenaline-fuelled coda which succeeded in getting the concert off to a rollicking start.

Mendelssohn’s E minor Violin Concerto (the second of two after the youthful D minor) is one of the most famous concertos in the repertoire and it has been a calling card for many great violinists.  When he was composing the concerto Mendelssohn wrote:  “One in E minor runs through my head, the beginning of which gives me no peace”.  I had rather mixed feelings about Arabella Steinbacher’s performance.  On the one hand there was nothing hackneyed about the performance and Steinbacher was scrupulous about phrasing and detail.  In the first movement she produced very poetic playing in the major key sections and there was a high level of technical polish.  However, the first movement is marked Allegro molto appassionato and this performance lacked passion and had a distinct Classical coolness.  She also had a tendency to linger over the major key episodes which meant the music lost momentum.  Steffens and the Philharmonia provided sterling support, perfectly complementing the soloist when she was centre stage, giving us rousing tuttis and responding flexibly to the shifts in tempo.  The transition to the slow movement over a long held note on the bassoon was beautifully handled.  In this movement Steinbacher produced long fluid bow strokes allowing Mendelssohn’s gorgeous melody to sing out without being over sentimental.  The double stopping was played with perfect intonation and Steinbacher produced some lovely shifts in colour.  Her tempo for the finale was a little slow although the score is marked Allegretto non troppo so she was perfectly within her rights to play it at this speed.  The playing was light and well-articulated and there were some nicely coordinated exchanges with the Philharmona’s strings although I would have liked to hear more of the effervescence and sprightly fairy tale magic.  Overall, this was a very competent, well executed performance although it was a little too restrained and fastidious for my taste.

The final work on the programme was Brahms’ Second Symphony which the composer wrote in the summer of 1877.  The lyrical, pastoral mood of the work lead many to compare it with Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony.  Brahms, however, referred to it as being a melancholy work and made the comment, “black wings are flapping above us” in respect of a section of the opening movement featuring trombones, tuba and kettledrum.  From the opening bars, ushered in by lower strings, horns and flutes, we knew we were in safe hands with Steffens and the Philharmonia.  Steffens conjured up an idyllic opening scene and created a wonderful feeling of space.  The transformation of Brahms’ famous Lullaby was lovingly played by the cellos.  In the development section Steffens created some rich, coloured textures and there was enormous power from the Philharmonia at the climax points.  There was a sense of intimacy before the movement drew to its glowing autumnal conclusion.  The opening of the Adagio had weight and intensity while the gorgeous cantilena on the cellos was allowed to blossom beautifully although it could perhaps have benefited from a little more poignancy.  Steffens seemed completely at home with the rich emotional ambiguities in this music and he coaxed heartfelt and searing performances from the Philharmonia.  The third movement scherzo was clean and precise and Steffens kept a tight grip on the shifts in tempo.  The oboes brought enormous charm to the lilting melody which runs through the movement and I was particularly impressed with the some of the tightly controlled passagework on the strings.  The finale produced some spirited, highly energised playing from the Philharmonia.  Steffens did a great job unleashing the talents of his players continually urging them to keep up the momentum until the climactic coda which was a tour de force.

There was some exceptionally fine playing from the Philharmonia throughout the concert.  Steffens clearly enjoys an excellent rapport with his players and I hope his relationship with the orchestra continues to move from strength to strength.

Robert Beattie

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