by Rachel Beaumont

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A bargain at €700 million: Beethoven at Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie

Poulenc's Organ Concerto and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony
NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, Thomas Hengelbrock and Iveta Apkalna
Großer Saal, Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg
19 February 2017
Bereich B, Reihe 7 Platz 6, €18

All concerts at the soon-to-be-opened Elbphilharmonie were sold out when we booked a trip to Hamburg last October, the principal purpose of which was to see Barbara Hannigan sing Lulu at the Staatsoper. So we mooched over on the evening we arrived with only the vague goal of admiring the famed curvey escalator and maybe enjoying views over windswept, rain-ridden Hamburg. We arrived at just the right time to join the queue for returns for the day's remaining concert, of Poulenc's Organ Concerto and Beethoven's Seventh, and after waiting 40 minutes picked up top-price tickets at the princely sum of €18. (What ease, we thought, though we had no such luck the following day where we tried the same method to get tickets for Bruckner's Eighth, roundly beaten to it by multitudes of keen Brucknerites. Top price for that concert was €60.)

The curvey escalator will probably get quite old quite quickly, and I'm bemused by the complex's vast, empty foyers (connected to each other by a series of bottlenecks) – a very different model from, for example, the cafe-bestooned Southbank Centre. These things I find mystifying given how impressively over budget the hall became. But regardless of its surroundings, the Großer Saal is completely wonderful, and has inspired in me numerous desperate plans of how to move to Hamburg.

Of course, the hall shouldn't take all the credit for the concert's marvellousness. Probably the last time I found a concert so intensely exciting was watching Thomas Hengelbrock conduct the Balthasar-Neumann choir and ensemble in Bach's B Minor Mass in Brussels. The man knows his stuff, and, now as then, drew intelligent, committed, thrilling performances from his players. This is the first time I've heard the NDR Orchestra live in concert but from the sounds of it they probably always play Beethoven with something approaching the magnificence and insight they displayed here.

But let's go back to the hall. It's interior is coated with individually chiselled concrete panels, each exactingly adapted to its specific location. It has a dizzying asymmetric vineyard structure that is both good news acoustically and enables each audience member to feel close to the action – the hall has a surprisingly intimate feel given its large capacity. From my experience in London I've tended to think of hall acoustics as something of an inexact science – the Barbican and Southbank halls are hardly short of acoustic-boosting panels – but the Elbphilharmonie proves that the science has come on a long way, even since the constructions of the wonderful Bridgewater Hall in Manchester and Birmingham's Symphony Hall.

The sound is surprisingly wet. It feels like it would be generous to the human voice and I'd love to hear a choral concert there. But within this depth there is an astonishing clarity and balance. The only equivalent experience I have is of listening to a good recording through good headphones. That works as a starting point, but here there is the added excitement of the fact that the performance is live, the sound instantaneous and in no way post-produced. Beethoven's Seventh is not an unfamiliar piece and I've heard it in concert and recording probably even more times than I can remember – but this performance felt like a discovery, or perhaps rather a new illumination. It was, in short, a profoundly moving experience, and a wonderful way to hear this glorious work.

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