This concert was the second part of the Philharmonia’s ‘German Romantic’ series which began in October, a survey of the meaty German works of the first half of the 19th century. Karl-Heinz Steffens has only been conducting the Philharmonia since 2014, but judging by how well they respond to him and their obvious affection for him, he’s clearly developed a comfortable relationship with the orchestra.

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

The programme felt substantial and well-assembled, opening with Mendelssohn’s Ruy Blas overture, composed in response to a commission by the Leipzig Theatrical Pension Fund. The composer wasn’t particularly struck by Victor Hugo’s play of the same name, but after a couple of digs from the Fund about the time he was taking, he duly tossed off the overture in three days. Whether or not Mendelssohn succeeded in catching the biting quality of Hugo’s play is still a matter of debate, but the warmth and energy of the music can be slightly disconcerting when heard while reading the play’s synopsis. Steffens conducted a red-blooded account of the score, but one with a sense of thematic clarity; it’s a work where flaws in the brass can be blatant from the start, but the Philharmonia had no such problems in the solid, colourful blasts which opened the piece. The violins gleamed mischievously, the cellos sounded rich and burnished.

Schumann had contemplated a piano concerto for decades before his Piano Concerto in A minor was finally completed; brief efforts at the end of 1820s and through the 1830s were abandoned. A Fantaisie for piano and orchestra composed in 1841 was the seed for the concerto which finally premiered in 1846 with Clara Schumann as the soloist, but as is so often the case with great works, it was initially unsuccessful. The soloist for this performance was David Fray, and there was little doubt that his account was deeply steeped in romanticism. A little more definition would have been preferable in the first movement where the interpretation was just a little too introspective. The colour and strength of the woodwind here though blended exceptionally well. Steffens seemed to clash with Fray in the first movement; the former drawing a sound from the orchestra that was energetic and gregarious, in opposition to just a little too much brooding in Fray’s playing.

The Intermezzo saw a better sense of unison between the two; shapely, limpid playing from Fray running clearly over the orchestra, where the cellos were particularly rich and earthy. The third movement fizzed with appropriate energy, the finale given in a cascade of crystalline upper notes that contrasted and blended with deeper, less defined lower notes in an appealing combination.

Brahms’ Symphony no. 3 in F major, also known as Brahms’ Third Racket (if one is related to Sybil Fawlty), premiered in 1883 by which time Brahms had achieved renown as a composer. Taken up and championed by the critic of the time, Eduard Hanslick, and deployed as a key composer on the conservative side during the War of the Romantics, Brahms had already twice shown that Beethoven had not had the last word in symphonic writing, but in his composition of the Third, he advanced towards the musical developments and symphonic poems of the composers of the Neudeutsche Schule without ever being seduced by them. Steffens gave an interpretation of the score that left little wanting. Thick, mellow and detailed, every element of each movement was lovingly treated, but well-judged tempi meant that we never lost sight of the architecture of the piece. The performance of the woodwind in the Andante was melodic and spacious, while the brass in the Poco allegretto was almost wistful in character. Velvety hues in the first movement perhaps gave a little too much restraint at times, but Steffens knew exactly when to invigorate the orchestra to give the climaxes a punch, and the fourth movement was an endless thrill,  the strings positively searing. The phrasing of the finale was well-shaped, waning both triumphantly and thoughtfully. Steffens and the Philharmonia must continue their exploration of this repertory, and soon.