Travel broadens the mind. It also opens the ears. For years, I was very happy to hear concerts in London… until I heard halls elsewhere. I spent last week in Paris, visiting the Philharmonie three times, as well as the Maison de la radio. In October, I made my first visit to Berlin’s Philharmonie. As soon as the Berliner Philharmoniker struck the first fortissimo ahead of the Allegro vivace in Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, I understood exactly why Sir Simon Rattle wants a new hall for London. All three halls knock spots off anything London has to offer.

Berlin's Philharmonie © Mark Pullinger
Berlin's Philharmonie
© Mark Pullinger

The Barbican, as Michael Tilson-Thomas told me last year, has good acoustics… it just doesn’t have enough of them. The auditorium is wide and the sounds at the side can be extremely poor. Cadogan Hall is fine for period instrument bands and chamber recitals, but is too cramped acoustically to contain symphony orchestras pelting out Prokofiev. The Royal Albert Hall is beautiful, inside and out, but is nothing short of atrocious as a concert venue: in many seats, you even get to hear the concert twice, so bad is this monstrous echo chamber. I’d be delighted to plunge the detonator to raze it to the ground, were it not a Grade I listed building: it would be an ideal location for Rattle’s proposed new hall.

Interior of the Royal Festival Hall © Cristian Bortes | Wikicommons
Interior of the Royal Festival Hall
© Cristian Bortes | Wikicommons

The Royal Festival Hall has long been my concert-going preference. Close to Waterloo, it was better located than the Barbican for travel from the South. I accepted the acoustic because – frankly – I knew no better. Bone dry, with a lack of bass presence or warmth, I got used to the sound… a bit like listening to a recording with the treble whacked up high. The expensive refurbishment has done little to change the acoustic, although great conductors – and great orchestras – can make it sound half-decent. But I’ll not forget the look of perplexed horror when a Parisian friend attended her first RFH concert last spring – Bruckner 4 where the massive chords died before they even made it past the Stalls. Just wait until you hear the acoustic in the Philharmonie, I was promised. She wasn’t wrong.

Philharmonie de Paris © Ninaras | Wikicommons
Philharmonie de Paris
© Ninaras | Wikicommons

The Philharmonie isn’t pleasing on the eye. Outside, it has been compared to a rusty spaceship, crashed into the Parc de la Villette, its reflective aluminium skin glaring in the sunlight. Inside, it’s all asymmetric curves and vineyard seating, meaning that the audience is never far from the action. Seats are comfortable, if distinctly stingy with the legroom. But the sound! There is a glorious warmth and bloom to the acoustic, with a decay of a few seconds, even for a period instrument band like Insula Orchestra. Put a bigger orchestra in there, playing heavier fare than Beethoven, and the sound positvely glows. Hearing the Orchestre de Paris in a scorching account of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony was a thrill, the players banked high, the sound compact but clear enough to hear every instrumental detail. The acoustics are so perfect that they doesn’t particularly suit solo piano recitals: Khatia Buniatishvili’s Haydn Sonata was often obliterated by audience coughs, each hack chiming as clear as a bell. But as an orchestral venue, it’s mighty impressive, easily a match for its illustrious Berlin name-sake.

Interior of the Philharmonie Paris © Mark Pullinger
Interior of the Philharmonie Paris
© Mark Pullinger

Just as fine – perhaps even finer – is the circular Maison de la radio Auditorium of Radio France, which I attended last Thursday. Newly refurbished, it’s a splendid venue, decked in wooden panels embracing the auditorium like a warm hug. As with the Philharmonie, it has a vineyard seating design, but with a capacity of 1461 (about a thousand less than its shiny new neighbour), meaning that the greatest distance between the audience and the stage is only around 17 metres. The sound is gorgeous, satisfyingly rich, yet clear, the seating comfortable, its location nestled alongside the Seine – like a giant Camembert – ideal. This is only Paris’ second hall, in terms of stature, yet I look at what we have in London and weep with envy.

Interior of the Maison de la radio © Mark Pullinger
Interior of the Maison de la radio
© Mark Pullinger

Why wouldn’t we want something this damn good for London? Once you’ve heard the sound in these halls, settling for the Barbican is like settling for instant coffee when a freshly pressed café au lait is on the menu. Next week, my Parisian friend and I are both due to review the LA Phil in Mahler 3, she at the Philharmonie, me at the Barbican. Who will have the more satisfying concert experience?