Can you ever have too much clarity in a modern concert-hall? After the inaugural concert in Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie, my sneaking suspicion that master-acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota hadn’t really pulled off the latest wonder of the modern world was underlined when one of the crack ensembles of our times – the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in partnership with its music director Riccardo Muti – became the first of the visiting foreign orchestras to grace this new hall. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with a series of steeply-raked vineyard terraces as a design idea for an auditorium, but what works in Berlin’s Philharmonie doesn’t really seem to work in Hamburg.

Riccardo Muti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra © Todd Rosenberg
Riccardo Muti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
© Todd Rosenberg

Toyota’s intention was that his 10,000-odd individually milled panels of gypsum fibreboard which form the inner cladding would scatter, and not merely reflect, the sound. However, what this hall lacks is a sonic focal point. The relatively cramped, centrally-positioned platform combined with balconies of seating bunched around it mean that the sound never really opens out from the heart of an ensemble, as is the case within the reflecting shell in Chicago’s Symphony Hall. When a single cough has the same impact as a beautifully floated clarinet solo in the dying embers of Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain, or the glockenspiel in Elgar’s In the South positively jumps out at you, something is clearly wrong.

Starting with a palate-cleanser whose astringency laid bare the graininess of the strings was not the most inspired choice. Muti has had a long association with Hindemith’s music and is one of very few leading conductors to regularly programme works like the rarely-performed E flat Symphony. When he gave his debut with the Hamburg State Philharmonic back in March 1972, the Konzertmusik for Strings and Brass followed on from a Rossini overture. I recall seeing the 31-year-old with his big whirling beat and seemingly endless hotsprings of energy, and concluding that here was a star in the making. More than four decades later, Muti still cuts an elegant figure on the podium but his players now need hardly more than a nudge and wink to produce needlepoint precision. One of the serious failings of the hall is that when the brass played at anything above mezzoforte, sounding like a gigantic turbine powering up, even the CSO’s fabled strings were easily swamped.

The British custom of overwintering in Italy’s sunnier climes has given us Elgar’s symphonic poem – it really is too substantial to be called an overture – that carries in its title a reference to the place of the composer’s sojourn on the Riviera, Alassio. It was the CSO itself that gave the American première in 1904 and it has been a Muti favourite for some time. The work opens with a dramatic sweep and exuberance that owe much to the influence of Richard Strauss but it also has at its core a heartfelt viola solo which Elgar re-imagined as a Neapolitan canto popolare, here tenderly played by Li-Kuo Chang. Muti’s view of the piece is now dreamily expansive, too much so at times since he stretched its duration to 24 minutes, and this Mediterranean musical postcard then lost some of its inherent panache and “wish you were here” sentiments. Those moments when pianissimo strings caress the ear with sun-drenched textures worked best in this hall where anything at a low dynamic level carries extraordinarily well.

The two items in the second half were a perfect vehicle for displaying virtuosic playing, which in the case of the CSO one can almost take for granted and yet, both in the shorter Mussorgsky piece as well as in the Ravel orchestration of the Pictures that followed, Muti took care to give expression to individual lines with poetic intensity. He must have been thinking of the words that the composer noted in the margin of the manuscript: “The creative spirit of the dead Hartmann leads me towards the skulls, invokes them; the skulls begin to glow softly from within.” Such softer sounds stood out in this performance: the featherlight string textures in Tuileries, the perfectly placed pizzicati of the second violins in The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks and the delicacy of the phrasing in The Market at Limoges. In Catacombs, there was much sensitive terracing of the dynamics from the peerless brass players and the addition of a proper bell in The Great Gate of Kiev added a touch of authenticity. Muti evidently believes that if you spend your time looking intently at the old masters on the walls, rather than rushing from one dramatically explosive canvas to the next, they are more likely to reveal their moments of incandescence. That said, the most atmospherically-charged playing of the evening came in the encore, the overture to I vespri siciliani. At present, however, the Elbphilharmonie doesn’t quite deliver the warm and integrated sound that fine musicians deserve.

***11