What piece should one combine Brahms’ German Requiem with, if with anything at all? At Sunday’s Philharmonia Orchestra concert, guest conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens came up with an unusual idea of prefacing the Requiem with the composer’s Clarinet Quintet – works from opposite ends of his life. Moreover, Steffens took the clarinet part himself, joined by the string section principals. Audience members who weren’t aware that the conductor used to be the clarinettist of the Berlin Philharmonic may have been surprised to see him appear with a clarinet instead of a baton, but Steffens certainly demonstrated that he was still a fine performer as well as a conductor.

Karl-Heinz Steffens © Susanne Diesner
Karl-Heinz Steffens
© Susanne Diesner

Initially, the Royal Festival Hall felt too vast for an ensemble of five instruments – the quintet begins with only two violins – but I was soon drawn in by the intimacy of the playing. Steffens sat in the middle with the violins (Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, Támas Sándor) on one side and the viola (Yukiko Ogura) and cello (Timothy Walden) on the other. The first movement began relatively slowly and cautiously, reflective but not overtly nostalgic. There was a transparency of texture throughout, and the five voices wove in and out of each other with elegance. Steffens’ clarinet was bright and articulate, and the strings maintained a tight and well-blended ensemble. The heart of the performance was in the Adagio second movement: they created a tranquil and ethereal sound world that really held the audience, and it felt as if time stood still. In contrast, there was lightness and charm in the third movement, led by the clarinet, reminiscent of the third movement of Brahms’ First Symphony. The work concluded with a set of theme and variations, where each instrument was allowed to shine.

After the interval, the stage was transformed with a full-size orchestra on stage and a 150-strong Philharmonia Chorus in the choir stalls. The two soloists, rising star Elsa Dreisig and renowned baritone Roman Trekel replacing the indisposed Michael Krauss, sat at the front of the stage. Despite the large forces, it was evident that Steffens was aiming for a similar transparency in the German Requiem as in the Clarinet Quintet in the first half. Even in the tutti fortissimo moments, the sound was never heavy or forced, both in the orchestra and chorus. First and foremost, my praise goes to the chorus – and chorus master Gavin Carr – for their outstanding singing. It was one of the best choral singing of the Brahms Requiem I’ve heard (on par with the Wiener Singverein with the Vienna Philharmonic I heard some years ago). They sang with a perfect balance of compassion, warmth and clarity of text, and the fugal sections were executed with precision and conviction. The cast sheet mentioned that the performance was being dedicated to their late chorus master Stefan Bevier, and I am sure he would have been very proud.

On the whole, Steffens’ approach to the work was quite straightforward and non-interventionist in the best sense of the word. None of his tempi or dynamics were extreme and he just kept a steady but flowing tempo, while subtly maintaining the balance between the orchestra and chorus. The addition of the Festival Hall organ gave extra resonance in the bass, especially reinforcing the pedal point moments. Soprano Dreisig sang her solo in “Ich habt nun Traurigkeit” with sweetness of tone, although her delivery felt slightly down to earth rather than offering comfort from somewhere high above. Baritone Trekel was commanding in his entry “Siehe, ich sage euch ein Geheimnis” in the penultimate movement, the dramatic high point of the performance culminating in the magnificent choral fugue. Throughout, the orchestra played warmly and delicately, with excellent contributions from the horns and brass, timpani and harp. But ultimately, it was the wonderful teamwork of all involved which filled the hall and us listeners with warmth, compassion and solace.

*****