In 2011 Hamburg Culture Senator Barbara Kisseler remarked ‘The Elbphilharmonie is very dear to us. In both senses of the word’. With an official price tag of 866 million euros and reliable insider information of over one billion, local taxpayers have the right to expect a lot from this monumental temple to Euterpe.

Looming over the river Elbe like a giant meringue plopped onto a slab of chocolate fudge, ‘Elphi’ has already become a prominent feature of Hamburg life. It has totally revitalized a formerly forgotten warehouse district and attracted immense local and international interest. The entire 2017 season is sold out. Even without the music factor, Elphi has become a Mecca of social involvement, and free admittance to the ‘Plaza’ foyer and 360 degree viewing gallery ensures a constant stream of visitors.

Jan Lisiecki © Mathias Bothor | DG
Jan Lisiecki
© Mathias Bothor | DG
Perhaps in time, like the Sydney Opera House, Elphi’s staggering construction cost will be a mere addendum on the actuaries’ spreadsheets, but for now the ultimate justification for such un-Germanic profligacy is Yasuhisa Toyota’s acoustic wizardry.

Although musicians are generally enthusiastic, from the audience perspective the Elphi sound is overly bright and dry with an alarming difference between seat locations. Typical of ‘vineyard’ auditoria, the exact source of the playing is vague which makes concerts more like a surround-sound audio experience.  The hall works best during very soft playing, but anything above a forte orchestral tutti becomes distended and orchestral textures blurred. This was particularly evident in Bernstein’s appositely named Symphonic Suite “On the Waterfront”

The opening horn solo by David Fernández Alonso made an instantly positive impression with a warm, mellifluous timbre but as soon as the instrumentation expanded, especially with the vast percussion section, the sound became ill-defined and almost cacophonic. Winds were harsh and first violins anonymous. Yannick Nézet-Séguin coaxed suitably ominous sonorities and impulsive rhythms from the Rotterdam Philharmonic, yet the overall result was disappointing. This could be attributable to Elphi’s problematic acoustics, especially as rehearsal time was reportedly minimal.

Following the blustering Bernstein, the Chopin Piano Concerto in E Minor, Op.11 was acoustically much more satisfactory, largely due to the smaller orchestration and outstanding musicianship of young Polish-Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki.

From the opening ff maestoso resoluto E minor chords full of absolute confidence and assurance, it was clear that Lisiecki was in total control of keyboard and concerto.  A long association with Nézet-Séguin going back to when Lisiecki was only 15 ensured a remarkable rapport between soloist and conductor which was both intuitive and anticipatory. Lisiecki has the ability to play with tremendous power, especially in left hand octaves, then immediately show impeccably subtle phrasing and a gossamer light  touch such as in the E major cantabile theme in the larghetto movement.  This section highlighted Elphi’s optimal acoustics for quiet playing as Lisiecki’s exquisite pianissimi wafted to the cavernous ceiling with perfect clarity.

With head bobbing and blond hair tossing, Lisiecki’s boyish enthusiasm and obvious sense of fun in the rhythmic scherzando opening to the third movement suggested that he was enjoying the performance every bit as much as the audience.

An encore of Chopin’s introspective, mystical Nocturne, Op.48 no 1 again displayed Lisiecki’s exemplary command of pianistic chiaroscuro with some crashing double octaves in the downward ff chromatic scale passages and a total mastery of overall mezzovoce phrasing in the opening measures. Maestro Nézet-Séguin was so engrossed with his fellow Canadian’s  playing he sat crossed-legged on the podium for the duration of the encore. 

The second half of the programme comprised a traditional orchestral showpiece, Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, Op.45. Despite a sensitive solo from concert master Marieke Blankenstijn in the Andante and some powerful brass playing throughout, there was something a bit flat about this performance which had nothing to do with Nézet-Séguin’s mastery of the score or ability to transmit his infectious enthusiasm. Seemingly the quixotic acoustics of the Elphi were to blame as anything above forte created a tsunami of sound which lacked focus and clarity of instrumental fabric. Whilst it is certainly not back to the drawing board for Mr Toyota, there needs to be some serious acoustic improvements made to the Elphi before the stupendous cost of this undeniably exciting project can be fully justified.

The late Barbara Kisseler also stated the building is ‘so overwhelming, it doesn’t even need the music’. One hopes this is not destined to be the case.