Elbphilharmonie Hamburg: The Opening Concert
Six years late, around €500m over budget and bathed in a soap-opera-worthy cauldron of lawsuits and recriminations, Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie was famous long before the first notes sounded at its grand Opening Concert back in January. However, hearing those first notes will remain one of the most magical and unforgettable concert experiences of many a hardened music critic’s career: in place of a brightly lit, onstage colossus of a symphonic chord, darkness and the strains of a single oboe intoning Britten’s ‘Pan’ from the back of one of the seating terraces. And as that bewitching string of notes floated and snaked its way around the silence, a second soloist revealed itself: the hall itself, because Yasuhisa Toyota’s acoustics were of such high definition and intimacy that even in this 2100-seat space you could hear the faint tap of the oboe’s key mechanism making contact with ebony. What then followed was programming genius: seamless segues between darkened-auditorium early chamber repertoire from the balconies, and lights-up, full-orchestra 20th- and 21st-century works from the stage, eventually climaxing with Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’. It felt like a once in-a-century concert in a once-in-a century hall.
And so to the DVD of that evening, and it’s a mixed bag as to how much of all that has translated on to film. The concert’s first pre-music moments are tainted by a rather offputting electronic rumble as if the engineers were still working out their game plan, but this quickly subsides. With regard to the digital translation of the hall’s acoustics, it’s a case of ‘you win some, you lose some’. So while that oboe mechanism isn’t so audible, the high-definition intimacy bristlingly reveals itself in the twang of harp and theorbo. Likewise, although the contemporary symphonic textures have lost some of their extraordinary analytical lucidity, the bass – curiously muted that weekend within certain repertoire – is present, deep and rich. An unequivocal success is the way the drama of those leaps between the centuries remains absolutely undiluted; savour the violent punch of Rolf Liebermann’s Furioso disappearing into Caccini’s gosammer-weighted ‘Amarilli mia bella’.
Moving on to the visuals, the hall’s glowing white inner ‘skin’ appears slightly cooler at certain angles on film than in real life, but this is easily balanced out by the technicolour glisten of the exterior light displays. These look phenomenal, and are well worth stretching to the Blu-ray for.
Beyond the concert, to describe Thorsten Mack and Annette Schmaltz’s accompanying film as a mere ‘bonus documentary’ massively underplays its 52 minutes of fly-on-the-wall reportage. Filmed right from the very beginning, it unflinchingly documents the architectural and funding dramas as they unfolded, and follows some of the particularly noteworthy design and manufacturing processes. It then climaxes with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra themselves, and their emotional discovery that the acoustics of their new home will forever change the way they play and listen as an ensemble. It’s great stuff.
As a concert recording this may not represent absolute as-it-was perfection but as a package with the documentary, and as a record of an extraordinary musical event, it comes highly recommended.