Karl-Heinz Steffens conducts Beethoven, Zimmermann and Schubert
11 Oct 2013
Ludwig van Beethoven
Leonore Overture No. 3 in C major, op. 72 (17 min.)
Bernd Alois Zimmermann
Symphony in one movement (second version from 1953) (16 min.)
Rosamunde, incidental music, D 797: Overture (12 min.)
Bernd Alois Zimmermann
Canto di speranza, cantata for cello and small orchestra (20 min.)
Ludwig Quandt Cello
Symphony No. 3 in D major, D 200 (28 min.)
Karl-Heinz Steffens in conversation with Walter Seyfarth (17 min.)
“The Berliner Philharmoniker have lost one of their most important instrumentalists – the music world has gained an enterprising maestro,” wrote the Tagesspiegel, when Karl-Heinz Steffens gave up his position as principal clarinetist of the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2007. In the same season he took up his new post as music director of the Staatskapelle Halle and as artistic director of the Halle opera house.
A year later he made his debut with the opera Fidelio at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin, and since the 2009/2010 season, Karl-Heinz Steffens has also held the position of chief conductor of the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz. He has been invited to conduct many renowned orchestras, and in this concert, he makes his debut with his old orchestra, the Berliner Philharmoniker.
In addition to Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 and the overture from Franz Schubert’s incidental music for the romantic drama Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus by Helmina of Chézy, the programme also included Schubert’s Third Symphony – “a work of youth ... and gleefully raucous vigour that stirs and moves without concerning itself with objective or success” (Eduard Hanslick). With Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Symphony in one movement and his Canto di Speranza for cello and orchestra, Karl-Heinz Steffens also conducted two highly expressive works of the 20th century with Ludwig Quandt, 1st principal cellist of the Berliner Philharmoniker, as the soloist.
The Long Road to Recognition
Orchestral Works by Beethoven, Schubert and Zimmermann
Many well-known masterworks have established themselves in musical life only gradually. The symphonies of Franz Schubert, for example – performed only in private circles during his lifetime – were compared with those of Beethoven. More than a century later, the works of Bernd Alois Zimmermann were initially judged according to criteria which did not do justice to them. Like his Viennese colleague a century and a half earlier, who died so young, the Cologne composer did not gain recognition as an independent creative individual until after his death.
Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 – Almost a Symphonic Poem
It took Ludwig van Beethoven ten years to bring his only opera to its final form. Leonore, the heroine, gains access to the prison under the assumed name Fidelio in order to free her husband, Florestan. There are four versions of the overture. The third, composed in March 1806, quotes Florestan’s dungeon aria in the slow introduction, after which the Leonore theme is played by the cellos and violins in the Allegro section. At the climax a trumpet call rings out in the distance, signalling the arrival of the Minister Don Fernando and thus Florestan’s release. A peaceful woodwind melody answers, and finally – after another trumpet call – the Leonore theme is heard in the flute, then in the entire orchestra, ending the composition triumphantly. Since this overture is almost a symphonic poem, Beethoven composed a simpler, more concise Fidelio Overture eight years later.
Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Sinfonie in einem Satz Symphony in One Movement – Shaken by an Apocalyptic Storm
On 23 July 1945 a Cologne music student wrote in his diary: “The outrageous statement of Hebbel that one ultimately only achieves what one has imagined and planned by the age of twenty increasingly seems to me to be coming true.” Bernd Alois Zimmermann, then 27 years old, suffered from the experience of war, which he regarded as “terrible proof of the helplessness of the so-called moral and Christian, spiritual order of being in general” and which had a profound influence on all his works, particularly the Symphony in One Movement, which he began in 1947.
When the symphony was perceived as chaotic at the Cologne premiere on 3 March 1952, the composer explained himself: “I have not avoided the consequences which inevitably result from the current spiritual and musical situation and cannot consider it my fault that we live at a time that is shaken by an apocalyptic storm.” Because Zimmermann had demanded too much of the musicians at times with passages in exposed registers, he altered the scoring and, in particular, the form. This second version, now regarded as definitive, was performed for the first time in Brussels in November 1953.
Franz Schubert’s Rosamunde Overture: After-Effects of Rossini Fever
A modified sonata form with Mediterranean agility and brilliance follows a slow introduction in minor with heavy, sombre orchestral blows. Schubert borrowed several elements from the Italian Overture in D major, which he had composed in 1817 under the influence of Rossini. Like the Italian composer, who was acclaimed in Vienna at that time, he replaced the development section with a brief transition. The songlike subsidiary theme in the woodwinds, commented on by the strings, is typical of Schubert, however.
Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Canto di speranza – a Work of Stillness
Like Zimmermann’s Symphony in One Movement, his Canto di speranza Song of Hope achieved its final form only after many years. Despite a “certain sensitivity” to the nasal sound of the cello in the high register, the composer was fascinated by the expressiveness and tonal range of this instrument and composed a cello concerto, which was premiered in Cologne in December 1953. Because the composer himself saw a contradiction between the concertante principle and serial thinking, “which is based on the ‘equality’ and ‘interchangeability’ of the parameters of pitch, duration, loudness, etc.”, he revised his concerto as the Canto di speranza in 1957.
In the new version, Zimmermann replaced the previous opposition of soloist and orchestra with greater penetration of the spheres of the former opponents. In addition, he developed the entire composition from a single basic unit, a twelve-tone row which also determines note durations, dynamics and volume levels. The concertante passages encompass a purely orchestral part which forms the heart of the work, with cadenza-like sections by the soloist. “The Canto di speranza is more a work of stillness; it does not want to persuade or thrill but rather gently nourish the small flame of hope, which can only give off light to one who puts his trust in it” (Zimmermann).
Franz Schubert’s Third Symphony – Premiered in London after 66 Years
Franz Schubert, who died at the age of 31, did not live to experience the popularity of the Rosamunde Overture. His symphonies were also not heard in concert halls until much later. Thanks to the efforts of Schumann and Mendelssohn, Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony was premiered in Leipzig in March 1839. Many years would pass, however, before Schubert’s early symphonies were publicly performed. The initiative to present them was taken by the English musicologist George Grove, who proposed a Schubert cycle at the Crystal Palace in London. The Third Symphony was performed there for the first time in its complete form on 19 February 1881 – 66 years after its composition!
The symphony is in the key of D major, which Schubert preferred in his early works. He may have had Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in mind, since Schubert’s Third also opens with a slow introduction. For the first time in one of his symphonies, the clarinet assumes a prominent role, first in a charming exchange with the flute, then at the beginning of the Allegro con brio with the dotted principal theme. This theme is an example of the young composer’s originality. Rather than repeating it as usual, he quotes the vehement octave runs from the introduction for the continuation until the oboe begins the nimble subsidiary idea, which is related to the principal theme.
Subtleties such as the “false” accentuation of the clarinet theme in the C major middle section are concealed in the graceful, relaxed Allegretto. During the Menuett, accents on the weak beats, which are gently corrected each time by the violins, are reminiscent of rhythmic jokes in Beethoven’s scherzos. Only the Trio, whose melody is presented as a folk song duet by the oboe and bassoon, dispels all doubt about the waltz rhythm. In the finale, a brisk tarantella in 6/8 metre, Schubert confuses the listeners again with powerful chordal accents on weak beats.
Schubert’s Third Symphony offers the listener rewarding discoveries. Several borrowings from Beethoven are less typical of this early orchestral work than its light-hearted Italian tone, which later would also characterize the Rosamunde Overture. Hence, after the London performance of this symphony in 1881, the Musical Standard mentioned its foretastes of several of Schubert’s more familiar works, “in particular, the D minor Quartet and the C major Symphony” as well as the Rosamunde music.
Karl-Heinz Steffens, former principal clarinetist of the Berliner Philharmoniker, has been chief conductor of the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz since August 2009. From 2007 to the summer of 2013, he was also music director of the Staatskapelle and artistic director of the opera house in Halle. In his years as a conductor, Steffens has already worked with a number of orchestras, including the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, the radio symphony orchestras in Berlin (RSB), Frankfurt (HR), Cologne (WDR ), Leipzig (MDR) and Stuttgart, the Munich Philharmonic, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Dresden Philharmonic, the Orchestre National de Belgique, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra. In 2008, Karl-Heinz Steffens made his debut with Fidelio at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, where he has since been re-invited annually. He made his debut at La Scala with Don Giovanni in January 2012. From 2010 to 2013, Steffens was also musical director of the project “RING Halle Ludwigshafen” which he himself initiated (direction: Hansgünther Heyme). Karl-Heinz Steffens studied clarinet at the State University of Music and Performing Arts Stuttgart and after periods in the same position at Oper Frankfurt and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, he was from April 2001 to end of 2007 principal clarinetist of the Berliner Philharmoniker, who he conducts for the first time in these concerts.
Ludwig Quandt was born into a family of professional musicians and began to play the cello when he was six. He later studied with Arthur Troester at the Lübeck Academy of Music where he earned his diploma in 1985 and passed his graduate exam with distinction in 1987. During and following his studies he attended masterclasses with Boris Pergamenschikow, Zara Nelsova, Maurice Gendron, Wolfgang Boettcher and Siegfried Palm. Among the competitions and prizes that he has won are the ARD Competition in Munich and the Premio Stradivari in Cremona. He twice took part in the Federal Republic’s Concerts for Young Artists. He joined the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1991 and has been the orchestra’s principal cellist since 1993. Alongside his orchestral work he also performs all over the world as a soloist and a chamber recitalist, not least as a member of various Philharmonic ensembles, including the 12 Cellists, the Philharmonic Stradivari Soloists and the Berlin Philharmonic Capriccio.