Loft conversions are all the rage, especially with pressure on living space, but it takes a particular kind of ingenuity to erect a new concert-hall on top of an existing building. Yet it reeks of mismanagement if you exceed your building costs by a factor of ten and come in six years behind the scheduled delivery date. But then it’s always been about location, location, location, and Germany’s second city has now got itself the world’s most expensive temple to classical music in a waterside setting to rival that of Sydney. Is there an adequate justification for the horrendous final budget of well over 800 million euros, given that Antwerp’s Queen Elisabeth Hall, home to the Royal Flemish Philharmonic, which opened only two months ago, came in on budget and on time for the princely sum of 80 million euros? Only time will tell.

The Elbphilharmonie © Maxim Schulz
The Elbphilharmonie
© Maxim Schulz

So, having built yourself a spanking new structure of redbrick, steel and glass rising 100 metres above the port area, the next hurdle you have to overcome is how to fill the first evening with suitable music. How to kick off? An occasional overture like Beethoven’s The Consecration of the House or Britten’s The Building of the House? And what else do you put on the menu? A specially commissioned work (short, medium, long)? A big spectacular symphonic opus as a centrepiece, like Beethoven’s Choral or Mahler’s Resurrection? A showcasing of the works of famous sons of the city like Mendelssohn and Brahms, not to mention those who cut their musical teeth there like Telemann and CPE Bach or contemporary composers who made the city their home like Ligeti, Schnittke and Gubaidulina? It’s all a bit like having to choose a birthday present for somebody who already has everything.

The Grand Hall © Michael Zapf
The Grand Hall
© Michael Zapf

Although Hamburg has never been seen internationally as a great city of music-making it does have a long musical tradition, stretching back to 1628 and the establishment of the first opera-house in Germany outside court circles. In more recent times British connections have contributed to this tradition: it was a major in the British army, Jack Bornoff, music controller for radio in the British zone of occupation, who just a few weeks after the cessation of hostilities invited Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt to form a new radio symphony orchestra. Initially called the Sinfonieorchester des Nordwestdeutschen Rundfunks (there was an overlap with the state of Northrhine-Westphalia), it became the NDR Sinfonieorchester in 1956 and was renamed the NDR Ebphilharmonie Orchester in 2015 after being given a ten-year residency in the new hall. What’s in a name?

Thomas Hengelbrock conducts the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester © Michael Zapf
Thomas Hengelbrock conducts the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester
© Michael Zapf

Exact details of the programme devised by the orchestra’s chief conductor (since 2011), Thomas Hengelbrock, were kept deliberately under wraps until the inauguration day itself, with the final selection of pieces not determined until after initial rehearsals in the new hall. Most of the eleven pieces will have represented a challenge to ears more attuned to festive fare, but the unconventionality had the specific purpose of celebrating the idea of sound itself and presenting it in a dramaturgical progression with no applause between the individual items. Right at the start, in a darkened auditorium, the oboist Kalev Kuljus played Pan, the first of Britten’s Six Metamorphoses after Ovid. Unusually, the composer wrote this without any time signature, allowing the soloist a high degree of expressiveness. This was followed by Dutilleux’s Mystère de l’instant, in which a love of sound for sound’s sake is a defining characteristic, with interjections from the cimbalom and other percussion instruments emerging from the string textures.

Grand Hall/ White Skin © Oliver Heissner
Grand Hall/ White Skin
© Oliver Heissner

The first of Philippe Jaroussky’s solos for countertenor with harp accompaniment was a piece by the Roman Renaissance composer Emilio de’ Cavilieri, and in a further example of monody he sang the madrigal Amarilli, mia bella by one of the creators of Baroque style, Giulio Caccini. In a tribute to one of the early musical sons of the city, Jacob Praetorius, musicians drawn from the NDR orchestra performed his motet Quam pulchra es. The remaining works in the first half offered sharply contrasting examples of composers defying musical tradition while simultaneously acknowledging their debts to it. Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s prelude for grand orchestra Photoptosis has claims to being his defining work, a melange of shimmering orchestral colours and sharp accentuation from brass and percussion, with ear-tickling reminiscences of Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Wagner and Scriabin. A significant figure in Hamburg’s musical life after the Second World War, Rolf Liebermann, who spent a total of seventeen years as artistic director of the State Opera, was honoured with his orchestral piece Furioso, in which a trombone ostinato, toccata-like passages for piano and pounding rhythmic counterpoint create a sense of unbridled energy. Sensuality and an orgiastic delight in full sonic potential were represented by the tenth and final movement from Messiaen’s Turangalîla.

The second half opened to the celestial sounds of Wagner’s Parsifal prelude, followed by Wolfgang Rihm’s specially commissioned fifteen-minute work Reminiszenz for large orchestra (including organ) and a tenor soloist. Written originally for Jonas Kaufmann, his replacement was Pavol Breslik, who negotiated the wide tessitura and long-breathed cantilenas with aplomb.

Elbphilharmonie Plaza © Oliver Heissner
Elbphilharmonie Plaza
© Oliver Heissner

So, an evening with no bleeding chunks? There had to be one, and it was perhaps the least surprising item on the programme. This inaugural concert ended with the finale to Beethoven’s Choral, Sir Bryn Terfel leading off the solo quartet (Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, Wiebke Lehmkuhl and Pavol Breslik) in authoritative fashion, with the choirs of North German and Bavarian Radio.

Ultimately, the success of any new concert-hall depends not on all the money spent on it, nor its outer appearance and setting, nor even its inner architecture, but on the quality of the music-making within its inner shell. With visits from the Berlin, New York and Vienna Philharmonics in the months ahead, plus a complete Beethoven cycle given by the Simon Bolivar Orchestra under Dudamel – to name just a few of the forthcoming highlights – quality is clearly a major consideration in the artistic planning. “Elphi” (the concert-hall already has a nickname), welcome to this world!