Karl-Heinz Steffens is a busy man. He juggles two regular posts leading the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz and the Den Norske Opera & Ballett, and is also much in demand as a guest conductor. He clearly has a happy relationship with the Philharmonia, with which he finds himself constantly reuniting, and they collaborated once again this week in an all-German programme of romantic greats. With the plethora of performances and recordings of these major works, there is something comforting about having a German conductor and violinist leading proceedings, especially when the conductor also spent many years as principal clarinet with both the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (under Colin Davis and Maazel) and the Berliner Philharmoniker (under Abbado and Rattle); good grounding indeed for performing three cornerstones of the romantic repertoire.

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

Beethoven wrote no fewer than four overtures for his opera Fidelio, and of the three "Leonore" overtures, the most successful is No. 3. The first performance of all four overtures in one programme was given in 1840 by Felix Mendelssohn, whose own music made an appearance later in this concert. Steffens and the Philharmonia gave a vibrant and zealous account, presenting a slower, more deliberate opening which added an extra degree of tension before leading into a robust airing of the main theme, with a particularly fine string sound combining richness with suitably Beethovian scrubbing, bright winds and dignified brass. Steffens' enthusiasm clearly resonated with the players, and despite a hint of looseness early on, this was outweighed by the commitment of the orchestra, which was otherwise tight and animated, particularly in the rousing closing section.

Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor is one of the most popular of all, crammed full of melodies, including the one at the very beginning that the composer said he just couldn't get out of his head. Arabella Steinbacher delivered this opening theme in elegant style, singing through her violin, a 1716 Stradivarius, from the outset. Combining lyricism with assertiveness, she navigated the music with an air of dignity, with balanced and attentive support from Steffens allowing the violin's voice to come through in the right places while also bringing orchestral voices to the fore, such as in the lovely bassoon and string introduction to the second movement.

Steinbacher exercised masterful control over the long, slow lines, and was poised but not over-sentimental, although this did create a slight sense of restraint. I particularly liked her subtle changes of timbre across all the strings of the instrument, where some violinists make a more extreme distinction between upper and lower registers. The third movement was taken at a true Allegretto non troppo pace, lively, light and scurrying but not excessively fast, as can sometimes be the tendency, and the frivolity continued right up to the jubilant close. This was a polished and accomplished performance, but it felt slightly lacking in overall impact, maybe a little too reserved. This could have been a reaction to not wanting to over-romanticise the piece, so maybe this cultured, if slightly introspective, approach was the solution, albeit at the expense of sparkle.

There was no such reticence in the Philharmonia's Brahms, the melodic Symphony no. 2 in D major. After taking two decades to write his First Symphony, Brahms composed his Second practically overnight. In fact, he wrote it over a single summer by the sea, 1877. From the very beginning, a sumptuous sound filled the hall with satisfyingly rich and sweeping strings, wonderful ensemble work in the woodwinds and opulent brass, with particularly fine horn solos. Steffens' rapport with the orchestra was evident, allowing players to relax in the gentler moments while making sure that the orchestra got stuck in and thrust forward with momentum in the more energetic episodes. There was a sense of coherence in the shaping of the piece, with Steffens carefully interweaving the many melodies which, Brahms wrote, "flow so freely that one must be careful not to trample on them."

Highlights included the gorgeous strings in the "lullaby" theme, wonderful cellos and winds in the opening theme of the second movement, with some very nice interplay between horn and winds, and Steffens' control over passages where waves of anxiety receded into calm. The gracefulness of the Allegretto grazioso third movement was nicely emphasised, and Steffens' infectious enthusiasm, exemplified by his dynamism on the podium with the occasional stamping of the foot to provide even more emphasis, came into its own in the spirited fourth movement with its joyful and triumphant climax. This was an honest, full-on performance of a much-loved symphony.

***11