Hamburg’s spectacular concert hall, opened in 2017 at a cost of more than €850 million and hailed as a new jewel in Germany’s cultural crown, has been rocked by criticism from a leading conductor that its acoustics are mediocre.
Riccardo Muti, 77, director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, said he planned to boycott the venue. “I’m not going to perform there any more,” he said. “I won’t waste my time there.”
A former head of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, he said that he had removed the Elbphilharmonie hall from his tours with the Chicago Symphony and the Vienna Philharmonic. “It’s a mediocre hall,” he told Die Welt.
The concert hall has established itself as a landmark of Hamburg, attracting 900,000 visitors a year
The remark could be dismissed as the isolated outburst of an irascible maestro had it not chimed with criticism from the German operatic tenor Jonas Kaufmann, whose performance in January was marred by protests from members of the audience that they couldn’t hear him properly. “I really ask myself whether the planners of this hall only thought of big orchestras and not the variety of our metier,” Kaufmann told Hamburger Abendblatt.
The management of the hall contacted Muti to urge him to take back his criticism, apparently outraged by the comments. It also took a swipe at Kaufmann. “The Elbphilharmonie is not necessarily a hall for beginners. You’ve got to be pretty good,” its director, Christoph Lieben-Seutter, said.
Muti is the most prominent critic yet and his comments the most damning, but his sentiments are not new. In 2017, after its grand opening in the presence of Angela Merkel, the Süddeutsche Zeitung music critic dared to ask: “Will the Elbphilharmonie go down in history as an acoustic debacle?”
The review of the opening performance continued: “Everything sounded devoid of secrets, intrusive, direct. The deep horns dominated the big wall sound while high string notes sounded puny. A room-filling fortissimo seems to be impossible here because the sound doesn’t rise to the last row. Each imprecision is enlarged grotesquely, quiet sounds and chamber music are exquisitely audible by contrast.”
The Elbphilharmonie fails in its primary purpose, says Riccardo Muti
HANS PUNZ/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
The concrete and glass construction was built on top of a brick warehouse and its top half resembles a petrified wave that reflects the hues of the sky. It towers 110 metres above the port of Hamburg.
When it opened after years of delays and massive cost overruns it was hailed as a world-class temple of music, and proof that Germany was still capable of large-scale prestige projects after the humiliating failure to complete Berlin’s new international airport on schedule.
The main concert hall, asymmetrical and curved, was designed by the Japanese acoustics guru Yasuhisha Toyota in a “vineyard formation”, with every level of the gleaming white auditorium linked by stairways and gangways. Unfortunately, 500 of the 2,100 seats are at the side of or behind the stage.
“If you sit directly behind the singer the ability to understand the language is reduced, you have a dampened audible impression,” Mr Lieben-Seutter conceded in a newspaper interview.
Criticism has not been confined to the acoustics: new bannisters were fitted and the sweeping white steps were marked more clearly after several visitors broke bones falling down the stairs.
Despite this, the Elbphilharmonie has established itself as a landmark of Hamburg and is constantly booked out, attracting 900,000 visitors a year.