German conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens replaced Daniele Gatti, who was originally to have conducted this concert, but was indisposed. Steffens gave up his solo career as a clarinettist (and his position as Principal Clarinet in the Berlin Philharmonic) in 2007 to focus on his conducting career. He made his debut with the Philharmonia in October last year, under similar circumstances, when he replaced an indisposed Dohnányi at short notice. He clearly went down well then with the orchestra, who have invited him back for further engagements in the next couple of seasons.

The Philharmonia was on fine form, with tight ensemble throughout, and they responded well to Steffens' assured control of dynamics, the strings in particular producing precise and controlled pianissimo playing. The Overture A Midsummer Night's Dream was composed when Mendelssohn was just 17, and it demonstrates his considerable precocious talent for imaginative orchestration, as well as his command of form and structure. Another 17 years on, Mendelssohn added further incidental music for the play, but the Overture still stands perfectly well by itself. The woodwind section produced a beautifully blended sound in the tender opening chords, and each time they returned, although the front edge of the chords was not always unanimously timed. The well disciplined strings had no trouble keeping the filigree ‘fairy’ pianissimo runs together, and Steffens gave the ‘braying donkey’ bounce and humour without overplaying the effect. It was an enjoyable opener to the concert.

Austrian Baritone Markus Werba joined the orchestra to perform a selection of six of Mahler’s songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn.  Mahler’s obsession with this collection of anonymous German folk poems was key not only to his compositions for voice, but also his symphonic output, with his orchestral settings becoming crucial parts of his second, third and fourth symphonies.

Werba gave a highly characterful performance of the chosen songs, which came across well.  He produced a warm tone, and communicated well with the audience. Occasionally his lively characterisation meant that the overall projection of tone suffered slightly. This was most evident in the first two songs, “Trost in Unglück” and “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt”, where perhaps the orchestra needed to be kept back a little in the balance. The humour is paramount here and Werba clearly relished this. However, by the third song, “Rheinlegendchen”, a sweet, almost sensuous tale, Werba showed us the warmth in his voice. The orchestration of “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” is masterful, and the horns, woodwind and cellos in turn, along with the distant muted trumpets, provided suitably sinister accompaniment to Werba’s soldier’s tale. Aside from a hint of tension at the top of the register, Werba created real poignancy here. We returned to satire for “Lob des hohen Verstandes”, and the donkey from the Mendelssohn made a brief comical re-appearance. From the ridiculous to the sublime, they finished their selection with the transcendent “Urlicht”. Werba’s performance was highly touching, and Steffens’ dynamic control was sensitive and subtle, bringing the concert’s first half to a moving conclusion.

Beethoven's “Pastoral” Symphony came after the interval, and one had to wonder whether this would be a routine, workaday performance of an old warhorse, but not so. To his credit, Steffens seemed to enjoy himself the most here, and his enthusiasm and energy was matched by an attentive and lively performance from the orchestra. There was no going through the motions here. Steffens set a healthy pace for the opening movement, and shaped the dynamics thoughtfully throughout, eliciting a bright tone from the violins in particular. His tempo for the Andante Scene by the Brook) was leisurely, and there was more tight ensemble from the cellos and violas, with dainty trills and rock solid spiccato from the first violins. The birdsong trio from the woodwind that concludes the movement was delicate and characterful. The tempo for the Scherzo (Peasant’s merrymaking) was a little on the steady side, but Steffens was almost dancing with glee in the boisterous central section. The opening to “The Storm” had sufficient menace, but this was the one place where greater dynamic contrast might have increased the drama. But the final movement was a delight, full of bucolic joy, building to a rousing climax.  And once again the players demonstrated their precision, this time with locked-in semiquaver runs from the bassoon and cellos seemingly effortless. 

These were highly enjoyable performances all round, and here's hoping a developing relationship between the Philharmonia and Steffens continues.