Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Inaugural concert, Philharmonie de Paris — review

Financial Times
Francis Carlin
An evening of sober musical excellence launched architect Jean Nouvel’s new structure
Exterior of the new Philharmonie de Paris concert hall©Charles Platiau/Reuters
Exterior of the new Philharmonie de Paris concert hall

Mind the cement mixer. Since building started in 2006, France’s ambition to provide Paris with a concert hall to rival Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Vienna’s Musikverein and, most importantly, Berlin’s Philharmonie, the building most music lovers will compare the new structure with, has had a troubled history. The €381m bill is double the initial estimate but no major project would ever get off the ground if sponsors were honest about the final amount. Still, given the already substantial delays and feuding over cost-cutting — the architect, Jean Nouvel, snubbed the opening and vented his spleen in Le Monde only a few hours before — would it not have been wiser to wait a few more months until everything was in place and the acoustics properly tested?

The hall itself is finished. More or less. And despite the strong whiff of 1960s eastern European aesthetics in the black and cream auditorium’s detailing, its asymmetrical vineyard structures are a relief after the forbiddingly grey exterior and soulless foyer areas.

In a slight affront to liberté d’expression, the official message to patrons is that the acoustics are excellent. French President François Hollande, who received an emotional standing ovation when he took his seat, described them later as exceptional. Perhaps so from his balcony vantage point — they are certainly an improvement on the Salle Pleyel, which, even after its last major makeover, still suffers from saturation problems — but my initial verdict from the stalls is that they are not yet in the same league as international benchmarks.

The sound was patchy, lacking in clarity in grand orchestral tutti and generally over-reverberant. The solo piano in Ravel’s G major concerto, despatched with thrilling verve by Hélène Grimaud, occasionally struggled to be heard and the low chamber strings in the Offertoire from Fauré’s Requiem sounded bizarrely as if twice as many musicians were involved. These birth pangs are only natural in a new hall, especially one that has rushed to respect its opening date. More when the engineers have finished testing and tweaking.

Musically, the evening was a display of sober rather than festive excellence, appropriately given the recent terrorist attacks. Paavo Järvi has turned the hall’s main resident, the Orchestre de Paris, into a crack formation with exciting attacks, often a weak point for French formations. Renaud Capuçon’s solo violin was poetically intense in Dutilleux’s short nocturne Sur le même accord and Sabine Devieilhe and Matthias Goerne were well nigh unbeatable in excerpts from the Fauré.

Sadly, the token new work, Thierry Escaich’s Concerto for orchestra, is a 30-minute pudding that gives everyone masses to do but at the expense of any memorable or original content — no competition for the Bartók work that pioneered the genre.

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