New concert halls don’t often make international news stories. But when Hamburg’s spectacular new Elbphilharmonie opened last year, it did – partly because the building costs had soared from an intended €323 million to an eye-watering €789 million (so much for German efficiency), but also because it was self-evidently the sort of building that becomes, like Tate Modern, a cultural destination.
From the start it proved a tourist trap, with sold-out concerts. And overlooking the small matter of runaway expenditure, its success has featured prominently in the argument for a new concert hall in London. What has worked for Hamburg, lobbyists insist, would also work here.
Having just been out to see it, I can testify that the Elbphilharmonie is indeed impressive, though with reservations. Built above an old brick warehouse and surrounded on three sides by water, its wavy-topped exterior looks like a paper crown out of a Christmas cracker: not particularly beautiful. As for the auditorium, it’s stunning but with an acoustic that’s OK rather than first class; clear and spacious but without the fulsome vibrancy you really want. I’d give it 7 out of 10.
And I’d award the same marks to the concert that I heard there, which involved the London Symphony Orchestra with Simon Rattle playing music that’s become so much the business of baroque bands that few symphony orchestras dare touch it nowadays: Handel and Rameau.
Rattle gets full marks for bravery in tackling this repertoire, and he got crisp, bright, energised results – especially in a batch of Handel arias sung by Magdalena Kožená. But listening with ears attuned to Handel on old instruments, I can’t pretend I was convinced. At least, not as convinced as I had been a few days earlier when Rattle and the LSO back at the Barbican went even more off-piste, in a concert built around a crazy score called Genesis Suite.
Cobbled together in 1945, this rarely performed suite tells the Old Testament story of creation in seven movements by seven different composers, most of them wartime émigrés in America. Ranging from giants such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky to Hollywood hacks like Nathaniel Shilkret, who co-ordinated the project, their resulting work has no coherence – it’s a true dog’s dinner of a piece – and isn’t helped by a tendentious spoken text. But played here with determination and some striking audio-visual support, it had an unexpectedly compelling power. Paired with Concerto for Orchestra by Bartók, another wartime exile in America, it filled a programme that reminded me why the LSO is widely thought of as the best orchestra in Britain. For evenings like this it gets my vote too.
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