This is it: the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg's already renowned new hall, which opened in January after a long, long wait involving years of delay and hundreds of millions of Euros. I popped over for a couple of days to hear and interview the young American pianist George Li - more about him when the article is out, but suffice it to say that he is the real deal. He performed the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and it was a privilege to be there.
|Sunset by the sea. Elbphilharmonie on the right|
There's just one problem. The design priority certainly involves impressiveness, memorability, magnificence - and a fabulous acoustic. Yet it does not appear to have the wellbeing of its audience quite as much at heart.
It is vast. Not all of what you see in the picture above is hall, though: there are other bits and bobs inside the brick section, not least a luxury hotel, while the venue itself is up at the top. Perhaps it is not until you reach the entrance that you realise what a big deal this is. Because you have to get to your seat in time for the concert and it can take a while.
Walk through the electronic gates (your ticket serves as boarding pass) and you are faced with the most inventive format of escalator I've encountered since Charles de Gaulle airport, involving several shifts of gradient and a long, high ride. Once you've done two escalators, there are stairs, stairs and more stairs. They are sleek and modern, involving interesting angles and twists. They smell wonderfully of new wood. A few lifts exist as well, which is lucky because the clientele for the Hamburg Philharmonic's Monday concert were not all sprightly on their feet. Benefitting from a health app on my phone that counts my steps every day and awards points if I do enough, I wondered if a partnership arrangement might be feasible for those who choose to climb.
Inside, the design is in the round, with stalls plus four tiers of seating above. The nautical theme continues: the balconies undulate like waves or a shoreline and the wall around the orchestra is studded as if with stones from a beach. The place is enormous, yet feels intimate as the division of the tiers makes you feel that you are not surrounded by thousands of people, everyone has enough space and wherever you sit you are relatively close to the performers. A giant acoustic mushroom hangs from the ceiling (in the photo you can just see the curve of it at the top, studded with lights).
The sound is clear as a mountain river and as fulsome as the sea itself: an excellent balance of colour and timbre levels and a substantial bloom to blend them. At times it erred on the boomy, certainly in the Tchaikovsky Symphony No.5 which ended the programme, but George's wonderful, singing piano tone was flattered and enhanced, with a chance to appreciate the nuancing of phrases and the depth of legato in a way that is often not possible in certain other venues one could mention.
Unfortunately our conductor for the night seemed to think the Tchaikovsky Fifth was a sacred space requiring dubious extremes of exaggerated tempi, and he waited on the podium, motionless while his orchestra tried not to twiddle their thumbs, for absolute pin-drop silence from the audience before beginning the first, second and third movements. Quite a challenge in an acoustic so clear you can hear someone burp on the other side of the auditorium.
But...oh dear...you would think, would you not, that after spending hundreds of millions of Euros on this building, they could put in enough ladies' loos? Could they hell. On level 15 I and most of my fellow audience members spent the whole interval queuing up, to discover upon entry that there were only two (2) stalls inside that door. What the heck were they thinking?!?
Verdict. Architecture: inspirational magnificence reinvented. Acoustic: mostly splendid. Creature comforts: inside auditorium, yes; in entrance, foyers and facilities: nnnooooo...
Hamburg itself has much to offer the musical traveller. I spent a wonderful morning in the so-called Composers' Quarter (above). Brahms's birthplace having been destroyed in WW2, along with much of the city, a charitable foundation has created a block in traditional Hamburgian style in the area where Brahms's family once lived; it houses a Brahms museum (the stone portal on the right of the photo) and a Baroque museum for Telemann, CPE Bach and Hasse. It will soon be home to a Mendelssohn museum as well - the staff told me it should be opening next year.
The Baroque centre is full of fascinating bits and pieces, notably the delightful information that Handel and Telemann were great friends and shared an enthusiasm for horticulture; it seems they used to post one another rare flower bulbs across the Channel. There's a model of a baroque opera house, complete with deus ex machina, a modern clavichord and a beautiful spinet of c1730 akin to one that Telemann might have used. Best of all, if you're a musician you will be encouraged to play the instruments. At the Brahms museum (one of the wardens of which is named Frau Joachim, though she says she is no relation) historical displays with facsimiles and photos aplenty trace the outline of his life, his relationships with the Schumanns and Joachim, and there's a "table piano" that belonged to him, on which he used to give lessons. They let you play that, too... It's not easy to control the evenness of tone, but the sound is almost surprisingly rich and responsive and as you make awkward progress through Op.117 No.1 you might try to absorb the notion that Brahms's fingers touched these keys, and that the pupil who sat at this keyboard striving to make music would look up at his/her teacher for response and see that thoughtful broad forehead, those frank blue eyes...
For another startling spiritual hit, go to St Michael's Church (the Hauptkirche Sankt Michaelis, or "Michel"). The interior, recently painted, is bright and white, filled with clear Nordic light from tall windows and spaces that billow around you like those oft-referred ship sails. If you're lucky (and I was) someone might be playing Bach on the organ. On one side of the entrance is a plaque to Mendelssohn, on the other side one to Mahler, who held a music director post in Hamburg and wrote his Symphony No.2 here. In the crypt is the grave of CPE Bach. At the font, Brahms was baptised. The place has an intense charge, an atmosphere of peace and meditation that pulls you in and demands that you stay there a while to breathe in its peace and breathe out your stress before retackling the outside world. That is true sacred space. No pulled-around tempi needed.