Staatskapelle Berlin under Barenboim: Mozart and Bruckner

La Philharmonie, Paris, Thursday September 8 2016

Conductor and piano soloist: Daniel Barenboim. Staatskapelle Berlin.
  • Mozart, piano concerto n°26
  • Bruckner, symphony n°6
I know nothing about acoustics and will only try to describe what I thought I heard from my single seat the other night. But scouting round the web for better-informed opinions about Paris's Philharmonie, I came a cross a blog called From The Sound Up, by an acoustical and architectural designer working in New York, and an article there entitled Why I can’t review the Philharmonie de Paris but why it’s worth trying anyway: a meditation on variability, which gives the impression that the sound in the new hall is especially varied. “Variation in the sound field is the topic of this post,” he writes, “because it is all I could think about after my experience in the brand-new (or, more accurately, yet-to-be-finished) Philharmonie de Paris. During a single concert, I experienced what might have been the worst concert hall acoustics of the tour, followed by what might have been the best.”

I was in a category 2 seat and found myself on the steeply-raked 5th-floor balcony that faces the orchestra, which a friend calls the "wall of death". For the category (and price: 90 euros) this was surprisingly far from the square, central platform. With reverberation I've seen put variously at 2.3 and 2.6 seconds, the overall sound was, to me, "churchy" (my neighbour said "swimming pool" but I'd say that was an exaggeration; at the end of the concert he claimed they should pull the place down and start again from scratch).

On account of the distance, it was as if I were sitting somewhere in the nave and the orchestra were playing in font of the altar. The overall sound is warm and roundish and to some extent enveloping, and during quiet passages it's certainly nicely detailed, but when the "high" instruments - the flutes and above all the violins - play loudly, the reverberation kicks in to give a soupy sort of "Mantovani" effect, obscuring the detail. I think this is what some people mean when they say that there is a "halo" around the sound. Lower instruments, cellos and basses especially, fare much, much better.

The other issue, again at least from where I sat, was that when a score goes abruptly from very loud to very soft, which happens quite often in Bruckner, for the duration of the echo there's confusion, obscuring what follows.

Overall, I would prefer a drier sound. To my ear, that reverb. too often blurs details, and after an hour or so, because of the excess distance, I started to feel out of things and switch off. One day I will have to go back and sit nearer, to see if the effect is more inclusive – but as I said above, it looks, from what I've read here and there, as if it will be very hard to decide where exactly to buy a seat, the implication being not that sections of the hall are different, but that each individual seat – and even your position sitting in it – is!

A detail: by one of those odd quirks of acoustics, during the concerto, the sound of the piano hammers was distinctly audible, tap-tap-tapping like a disembodied woodpecker, about three rows in front of me, to the left.

The programme was oddly lop-sided: a 25-minute concerto followed by a 20-minute interval, and then the symphony. Why orchestras no longer play overtures baffles me. Will we never hear them again?

The concerto was Mozart exactly as I no longer want to hear him, by a sleek modern orchestra and on a gleaming piano the size of a ship with plummy sound and a dynamic range Mozart never heard. Barenboim certainly exploited the dynamic range very skilfully, but his performance sometimes seemed almost cavalier, rushing through the runs (what the French call “soaping” them) with fistsful of wrong notes. Not a great showing, though the audience seemed to like it. I'm told Barenboim is impatient about rehearsing and his concerto performances can therefore be “seat-of-the-pants” affairs. Also that he takes too much on for his age. Maybe so.

The symphony was much better. The Berlin orchestra is wonderfully business-like and forthright (and would have done a great job in Egmont, if only we'd been allowed an overture), and Barenboim's approach, though very carefully crafted, handling Bruckner's tiered build-ups with admirable control and bringing delicate reverence to his “religioso” modulations, is relatively straightforward: more punchy than schmaltzy, not too much fiddle-arsing around with the tempi (mostly moderate to brisk), limited foot-dragging… It was lovely to hear the 6th played with such un-histrionic skill. To pick out a couple of details, it was a great evening for the principal oboe in the second movement, not such a great one for the principal horn, who fluffed quite a lot of notes. Tutti were impressively together, as usual with good German orchestras, and threw up great chunks of sound. But as I mentioned above, it all sounded a little too far off: I remained outside the music, not involved in it, and towards the end found myself thinking of dinner…

For those wanting more about the acoustics, here's a link to the blog entry.


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