So, singers, is Hamburg’s swanky hall really that dim?

So, singers, is Hamburg’s swanky hall really that dim?


norman lebrecht

January 14, 2019

Jonas Kaufmann says the sound at the Elbphilharmonie is unacceptable and he will explain why to the audience if he ever sings there again (which is unlikely).

Any other singers care to share their experiences of the hall?

We know that some string quartets have found it tough to project.



  • Thomas Silverbörg says:

    Well, it was beaten with an ugly stick, to be sure.

  • waltraud becker says:

    See the reviews of the Wagnerkonzert of Nina Stemme the days before…. Says all ! There are lots of reports saying the same. Orchestras only or singers only may be good, but not singer in “front” of a big orchestra. Audience behind the ensemble hears nothing except noise.

  • Pedro says:

    I was there last season fot the Deutsches Requiem by the SOBR and Haitink. Superb performance. No complaints.

    • Tamino says:

      Where did you sit? apparently that’s one of the crucial issues with the acoustics of this hall. People on the sides and in the back hear unbalanced cacophony if it’s too many players or if it’s singers or instruments that have strong directionality.
      Maybe a choir works better there than solo voice?

  • Alexander Hall says:

    Full marks to Jonas Kaufmann for stating the blindingly obvious. Thus speaks an honest man. Since its inauguration I have reviewed about a dozen concerts in the Main Hall and attended several others, with different seats in different seating areas on each occasion. When the Chicago Symphony’s strings are swamped by the brass, something is seriously wrong (and that was not Maestro Muti’s fault). You can actually have a passable listening experience in a few select areas, but results are patchy at best and, in the upper levels and behind the platform in particular, a serious embarrassment. Local politicians have continued to accentuate the positive, but having spent well in excess of 800 million euros on the complex they have a need to justify the expense and the existence of the Elbphilharmonie. Far too many visiting orchestras and maestri have joined in a chorus of praise, eager no doubt to garner repeat invitations. The lessons for all those speculating about the next building of its kind (London, are you listening?) are there for all to see. Never, ever entrust such a project to architects who might have many a fine edifice in their portfolios but have never once designed a concert-hall. And, oh yes, make sure that the acoustics always come first and the cladding and the interior design are always secondary to these requirements.

    • Francis Carlin says:

      Sounds similar to the Philharmonie in Paris, another hall with very dodgy acoustics that conductors (Rattle for example) and performers praise to the skies while regulars often admit to being unhappy : a 2.7 second reverberation (officially); the impression that the sound is not coming from, say, the solo piano but has been beamed in from another source; massive variability depending on seating. I’ve given up with it. A pity as the programming is excellent.

      When will planners realise that the shoe box shape as in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw and Vienna’s Musikverein has never been bettered? Positioning the stage towards the middle of a hall is asking for trouble. All in the name of inclusiveness! Think of the poor sods sitting behind the performers, especially for choral works.

      • Peter Clements says:

        Shoe box yes, but my experience of Scharoun’s Berlin Philharmonie (vineyard plan) was memorable.

        • waltraud becker says:

          Berliner Philharmonie: Schöne Müllerin with Barenboim and Kaufmann: the back seats were not on sale !!! Why? They know about their problem !!!

      • MacroV says:

        I’ve heard concerts in both the Concertgebouw and the Musikverein, and admittedly they both sound great. But not all shoeboxes are great, and another problem is that many seats have terrible views. Boston’s vaunted Symphony Hall sounds great in some places, but if you’re in the back of the orchestra level, you’re both very far away and under the balcony overhang, which kills the sound. Same with Prague’s Smetana Hall, gorgeous, classic venue that it may be.

        Bringing the audience closer to the action in a hall like the Berlin Philharmonie is also an important part of the experience.

        All this said, I certainly understand that if you’re sitting behind the orchestra, you’re probably not going to hear a singer very well.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Indeed….. For orchestral concerts, the shoe box is ideal, and the music is written with the idea in mind that the strings sit in front, then the woodwind, and the brass at the back, three layers of sound to be listened to from the front so that the winds penetrate the ‘curtain’ of string sound and blend.

        Many modern halls don’t take this aural structure of the orchestra into account. When you sit behind the orchestra, you don’t get the right balance. That is also a problem in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam though, which has back seats.

        In Nashville however, they followed the shoe box model with a new hall:

      • Novagerio says:

        The Musikverein Saal, the Zurich Tonhalle, and not least the wonderful Laeiszhalle in very Hamburg! The Elbphil is just another “fancy” snobbery that has cost the taxpayer 790 million €!

      • Arto says:

        Come to Antwerp and listen to our new ‘shoe box’ Queen Elisabeth hall. A pleasure to listen and sing in this hall.

    • Gustav Mahler says:

      Totally agree. Why should Jonas Kaufmann sing again in a Toyota (Elbphilharmonie) if he can sing in Hamburg in a Mercedes Benz (Laeiszhalle)? Almost the same amount of seats so he doesn’t loose audience.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Ergo, Sydney Opera House and the orchestra pit too small for them to stage Wagnerian opera. Looks good from the outside, though, for the tourists!!

      • Nick2 says:

        Comparisons with the spaces in the Sydney Opera House will always be more favourable. Utzon never thought his rough drawings would ever win the design competition and he had not given much consideration to what would be installed within his sails structure. To make matters so much worse, local politicians got cold feet as the interior was being constructed. They did not believe the opera company could fill such a large space whereas the Symphony already had a decent audience. So what we know now as the Concert Hall was originally designed to be the Opera Theatre. Somewhere there is $500K of flying equipment rotting away. What had been designed as a smaller Concert Hall then became the Opera Theatre. Hence the disaster of the orchestra pit – and a great deal more. As more than one stage director has commented: “Sydney’s Opera Theatre stage is crushingly small.”

    • Jonathan Sutherland says:

      Alexander Hall is absolutely right. Depending on seat location, the acoustics in Elphi are variable at best and at worst appalling – depending on the performance genre.
      Pianissimi playing works wonderfully but anything above a mezzo forte orchestral tutti turns to mush. Toyota made the ridiculous comment that ‘there are no bad seats’ in Elphi. Then why aren’t the ticket prices all the same?
      The best sound I heard there was a concert performance of Ariodante with Harry Bicket, Alice Coote and the English Concert. The irony is that Elphi was built with the big symphonic works of Mahler, Bruckner and Brahms in mind. Instead the good Hamburgers paid the correct figure of a billion euros for a great Baroque-music hall.

    • Dave T says:

      “When the Chicago Symphony’s strings are swamped by the brass, something is seriously wrong”

      Don’t blame tha ‘burg. It’s a tradition in Chicago that goes way back.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Once attending a CSO concert when they were on tour I sat just behind the orchestra & with the Strauss Elpine Symphony the brass undid my hairdo so that I had to struggle for 2 1/2 days to get it right again. From then onwards I sit in front.


  • Karl says:

    Anyone just looking at a picture of the hall should be able to see that it is terrible for singers. Far too many seats are behind the stage. When they built a new hall in Montreal they did it right – only 200 of the 2100 seats are behind or on the side of the stage. Most of those are used to seat a chorus. When there is no chorus patrons are allowed to sit there.

    It’s an interesting perspective sitting behind the orchestra. You get to hear things that you don’t usually hear. Earlier this season I sat right above the timpani for Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony and I heard all the timpani parts that I don’t usually hear in that work.

    • Emil says:

      Re. Montreal: The problem is that the Maison Symphonique is far too reverberating. The result is that what supposed to be a hall with variable acoustics is always used in the same setting, with the ceiling panels lowered to the maximum (or close to it) to absorb reverberation. So the sound is great, but the acoustics are not as flexible as hoped. Another interesting quirk in Montreal is that they installed two movable rows of seats in front of the choir seats, so in most symphonic concerts they cram the orchestra a bit and sell a few dozen more seats.

      As for sitting behind the orchestra, I have memories of a Mahler 5 in Montreal (NY Phil visiting) where I sat right above the percussions, near the horns. I didn’t hear most of the symphony…

    • Jennifer says:

      The Symphony Hall in Birmingham also sell the “choir seats” when there is no choir involved. Not only does one hear the orchestra rather differently but one is, of course, looking at the conductor as though one were a player.

      To have been able to watch Sir Simon Rattle thus was an absolute revelation to one who has only ever played (as a very very diffident amateur) in a small group of instrumentalists.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The backside of a painting is not the best part of it.

  • phf655 says:

    The Concertgebouw is closer in shape to a square, or cube, than a shoebox, which is more elongated. Smetana Hall in Prague, which I have found awful, becuase of its extremely long reverberation, is shaped something like a classical amphitheater. Symphony Hall is larger than any of the other mentioned, so the seats in the rear are quite far from the stage, and not very good acoustically. The seats in the side balconies, close to the stage, is literally incomparable.

    • Sixtus says:

      When I lived in Boston my subscription seat for the BSO was precisely in the area you specify. It was chosen after attending many concerts and rehearsals while seated in various locations in the hall. Most similarly proportioned shoebox halls produce comparable results at their corresponding locations. This predictability is part of the shoebox’s appeal. I can choose a seat off a seating chart that will produce the balances I want and most times I will be satisfied. Not so with non-shoebox halls where lists of good seats need to be generated and no hall’s optimal-seat map is transferable to any other hall.

  • Magnus Berglöf says:

    Sometimes I have the feeling that it is more important how a concerthall looks than sounds. Malmö live is a concerthall in the south of Sweden. It was built a couple of years ago. It is not a “spectacular” buildning if compared to the halls of Paris and Hamburg but the acoustics are superb. The main hall is in yhe shape of a shoebox.

  • Thomas Pellaton says:

    My friends it is not just the Hall. Here in New York I heard Kaufmann twice in Carnegie Hall with it’s superb accustics – the second act of Tristan with the Boston Symphony. He was un-hearable through the whole performance. His second concert with the Orchester of St. Luke’s – operetta and film music was also very ungenerous in volume. And the Fancuillas at the Met Opera were in and out as to vocal presence and volume. Are you all sure it is just the Hall?

    • I agree! With Kaufmann, who I admire for musicianship and acting ability and amazing dynamic control, it depends on the work. I heard him sing an excellent Tosca and Weether at the MET. Both roles high tessitura! The first time I heard Kaufman was maybe 7 years ago at the Berlin Philharmonie and it was Das Lied with Abbado. He was inaudible except for a few top notes. Walküre at the MET opposite Eva-Maria Westbrook and Hans Peter König, two powerful voices, Kaufman was totally inaudible. Adriana Lecouvreur at Carnegie Hall barely audible. Heard Antonenko in the Hall that same period in Otello with Muti and he was phenomenal in every sense. Elbphilharmonie may not be the best hall, but Kaufmann does have a resonance problem. It’s not a voice that can handle a big orchestra in his low and middle range. The dramatic repertoire requires strength throughout the range.

  • John Daszak says:

    The Elbphilarmonie is not an ideal acoustic for every piece! I’ve sung there twice and fortunately big chorus in both pieces, so most of the area behind the Orchestra was taken up with chorus. Das Lied is a piece for Orchestra and soloist/s, as such the soloist/s would usually perform in front of the Orchestra… if you are seated behind or (to a lesser extent) at the sides, you aren’t going to hear much voice unfortunately. The human voice is directional!

  • Graeme Withers says:

    How about the singers who took part in Fledermaus at New Years, with Honeck and large orchestra?

    • waltraud becker says:

      Are You sure Fledermaus with its loud “arias”, giving te singers the chance to move and turn, can e compared to Das Lied von der Erde? By the way: the singers at Fledermaus wore mikes !!!

  • Feurich says:

    The stage behind the orchestra at the Concertgebouw is not that bad. It wraps around so, if you are on the side, you are more to the side of the orchestra than behind it. Of course if you sit too close to the orchestra you risk having your concert ruined by certain sections overwhelming the acoustics. I liked the Montreal hall but found the parterre had very poor lines of sight to the elevated orchestra.