Karl-Heinz Steffens enjoys a wide-ranging career. He has been at Teatro alla Scala in three successive seasons and conducted a Ring Cycle in Ludwigshafen, and many ensembles in Europe and now includes the Philharmonia Orchestra at home and abroad, which he has a clear rapport with.
The rich sound heard at the Royal Festival Hall had some of the characteristics familiar with German orchestras – particularly in fullness of string quality and sonority of brass. This style was immensely appropriate and Mendelssohn’s lovely Ruy Blas Overture gained in grandeur. The unhurried delivery of the noble themes was allied to admirable firmness of pulse; the central melody, led by clarinets and cellos, has rarely sounded so beautiful.
David Fray represented Schumann’s Piano Concerto in the best tradition of ‘romantic’ interpretation. Certainly there was flexibility of tempo but it never countered the music’s flow and the melodies were shaped with great elegance. Steffens’s direction was sensitive to this reading, particularly when the opening movement’s main theme returned with gentle sadness and the woodwinds phrased the melody in an identical manner to that of the pianist; an example of Fray’s understanding lay in the cadenza – part of the music’s architecture rather than a showpiece. The thoughtful interpretation was no less convincing in the unhurried rendering of the central Intermezzo, notable for the gentleness of its hushed moments, and the Finale was rendered with exciting force while retaining beauty of tone. Yet a contrary element was evident in the upper notes of the piano; thin, over-bright and at odds with the elegance of Fray’s subtle approach.
Steffens directed Brahms’s Third Symphony as if he has known it for years. He gave an expressive reading which attended carefully to inner detail. The opening Allegro was very expansive, reflective moments were calm rather than intense but the music pulsed firmly along and the exposition repeat swept in as part of the structure rather than a sudden restatement. The slow movement was a tender air – wonderful hushed playing here – and the Poco allegretto, though restrained in tempo, still achieved flowing elegance and the general forwardness of the horns, evident throughout, was particularly noticeable. Solid strength was the essence of the Finale – the firmness of Klemperer without his unvarnished sound. Again the power of famous German ensembles was brought to mind and when Steffens presented commanding climaxes he left a little in reserve for those of greater significance which, as a result, made greater impact still.