Christoph Willibald von GLUCK (1714-1787)
Overture to Iphigénie en Aulide [9:48] Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Overture and Ballet Music from Idomeneo, Rè di Creta, K. 366-367 [30:50] Luigi CHERUBINI (1760-1842)
Overture to Médée [7:45] Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Overture to Die Ruinen von Athen, Op. 113 [4:55] Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Overture to Oberon [9:28] Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Overture to Ein Sommernachtstraum, Op.21 [12:15]
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Karl-Heinz Steffens
rec. 4-8 April 2014 and 2 January 2015, Konzerthalle Bamberg, Joseph-Keilberth-Saal
Reviewed in CD format TUDOR 7195 SACD [75:04]
Karl-Heinz Steffens (born 1961) is still probably best known to most music lovers as an outstandingly gifted clarinettist: he was, for example, Principal Clarinet of the Berlin Philharmonic from 2001 to 2007, when he resigned from the post to concentrate on conducting. He has clearly been highly successful in his new career, both in the concert hall and in the opera house: along with some very high-profile guest engagements, he has been Principal Conductor of the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz since 2009, and is about also to take over the Norwegian National Opera; in Britain he has appeared with the Philharmonia, the CBSO and the Hallé. He has already made several records: of these, MusicWeb International has reviewed discs featuring music by Dallapiccola, Dutilleux and Robert Fuchs, as well as a selection of Classical trumpet concertos with Gábor Tarkövi. Not surprisingly, given the relatively abstruse nature of much of this repertoire, these reviews do not say very much about Steffens’s conducting, though Rob Barnett’s reference to the “tension and sparking life” of his Fuchs performances would be equally valid for most of the music-making here.
Why this precise programme, though? Even the disc’s title ‘Overtures’ is not strictly speaking accurate, given that about a third of its length is devoted to the Idomeneo Ballet Music. We do get a chronologically ordered conspectus of musical styles used between the early Classical and early Romantic periods, but not a particularly detailed or original one; and the booklet’s suggestion that the disc’s subject-matter might be ‘antique [sic] heroes and heroines’ more or less holds good for the first four composers, but hardly for Oberon or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. With the exception of the latter piece, however, these works are nowadays not heard as often in the concert hall as they once were, so maybe that in itself is reason enough for choosing them – as against such rather hardier perennials as, say, the overtures to Die Zauberflöte, Egmont or Der Freischütz.
It is a shame that the only performance I find disappointing is the one that opens the disc. Gluck’s overture to Iphigénie en Aulide is a simply marvellous piece, and Steffens begins it promisingly, with a haunting, vibrato-free slow introduction that leads one to expect a ‘historically informed’ performance. His speed for the main allegro, however, lumbers along arthritically in a way that reminds the listener – as little else on the disc does – of the ponderous, old-school Germanic style of earlier decades. I was tempted to blame this approach on that convenient scapegoat Richard Wagner, whose concert version of the overture Steffens gives us here; but this idea no longer seemed tenable after I happened, just the other day, to hear Dennis Russell Davies conduct a scintillatingly fast live performance of the self-same Wagner arrangement.
Thereafter all goes swimmingly. The Idomeneo performances are certainly ‘big-band’ in scale, but have plenty of character and rhythmic lightness; and, whatever the reason for its presence here, the Ballet Music is a welcome (relative) rarity: the five quite substantial pieces, dating from 1781, are all stunningly inventive examples of ‘middle-period’ Mozart. Steffens’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture is very agreeable, expertly paced and played, if not especially distinctive. For me the real highlight of the disc, however, is the sequence featuring Cherubini, Beethoven and Weber. The overture to Médée is superbly done, combining restless, sometimes violent energy with the right degree of lyrical intensity. The Ruins of Athens and Oberon also receive strongly characterized, but also detailed and exceptionally well-played performances. Steffens is here particularly strong in seamlessly combining atmospheric slow introductions with dynamic allegros, and the Bamberg Symphony comes across, not surprisingly, as an orchestra of the highest class. Hats off especially to the woodwind soloists and lower strings in the Beethoven, and to the principal horn and the violins in the Weber.
As one would expect from Tudor, the sound is excellent. So, as I say, are the vast majority of the performances; and the playing time is generous. Whether you will want to buy the disc will no doubt depend on whether you want this precise combination of works. It is enjoyable and distinguished; but it comes at full price and, try as I might, I still can’t work out what it’s really for. Somehow, its whole seems to amount to somewhat less than the sum of its often considerable parts.