Philharmonia 15th. Feb. 2017- David Fray, Karl-Heinz Steffens


This concert had to offer the audience two potentially exciting Leicester debuts. Both pianist Daniel Fray and Karl-Heinz Steffens brought with them impressive credentials , particularly in  German music .  Fray has made a number of well received recordings of this repertoire and Steffens has by all account, after stepping in at the last moment for an indisposed conductor, immediately established a close rapport with the orchestra. So anticipation was high.


However, perhaps it was my heavy cold making me overly critical, but I felt the concert in one respect fell well short of what had been anticipated. Over the years there have been some fine performances of the Schumann Piano Concerto at DMH and time and again I have felt that this work is truly the most delightful of the Romantic piano concertos. Though it has bravura enough, it is almost always on the edge of light fantasy together with passages of meltingly beautiful  lyricism founded quite obviously in the composer’s love for his wife Clara , she who gave the first performance.


Alas, little of this emerged, for me at least. Right from the clarion opening which seemed almost peremptory rather than something like a joyous leap, textures were muddy instead of being airy and there seemed little shaping of phrases. In the conversation between orchestra and piano in the slow movement, the thought occurred that if this was intended to be the musical equivalent of  words between Robert and Clara, then the conversation was remarkably brusque. Divorce seemed on the cards. Coupled with a matter of fact finale, the experience was really rather dispiriting.


So much so was this the case that one had to wonder whether the imported piano was the villain. In truth it sounded a poor instrument indeed with a muddy bass and middle and a treble that  only delivered steel. Perhaps the conductor and orchestra felt the same because the accompaniment seemed for the most part very foursquare and dutiful rather than being in concert to deliver the pleasures to be found in the work. Perhaps things will come together better in London.


However, all was on a different plane in the purely orchestral items in the concert, which got off to a truly tremendous start with Mendelssohn’s dramatically splendid overture Ruy Blas. Many decades ago I had an LP ( or was it a 78?!) I think of Beecham doing this work and I thought then what a taut dramatic piece of music it was. It surprised me to find out from the programme that the composer suppressed it. This was the first time I’d heard it live and the conductor made a splendid case for it. It was clear that Steffens’ time as an eminent  clarinettist had given him a good idea of how through the conductor’s stick to make clear what he wants and perhaps it is not entirely fanciful to think that the lovely instrument he has deserted for the podium has made him want the orchestra to relish and mould the musical phrase and to sing.


That was what stood out in the performance of Brahms’ 3rd Symphony . Some years ago with this orchestra the late Sir Charles Mackerras gave a performance of this symphony that was bracing. It let the light in and had little inclination to indulge much Brahms’ sunset glows. I came away from that thinking that was the way to blows the cobwebs out of Johannes’ beard.  I do still think that is often necessary. Yet every now and again a conductor comes along, perhaps not much enamoured of modern practice, and breathes life into a more traditional means of delivering the music. Such a one was Nelsons and now Steffens joins that company.


He clearly had thought long and hard about this symphony and how to bring out its many beauties without mortally harming the structure by dallying and collapsing into brown syrup. Once or twice , in the second and third movements, things came close to stasis but such was the conductor’s control that the effect was of such moments being a daring determination to mine the contemplative moments in the score rather than skating over them by quickly pressing on. Also, the effect was enhanced when in contrast the many moments of drama were delivered with great power by an orchestra on top form. In a way then perhaps because the conductor had been at pains to register the lyricism and many of the inner stands of the symphony, the last movement made at times a spine-tingling effect with the brass in full hunting mode. So,  I went home happy!