VISITING EUROPE’S GREAT MUSICAL CITIES – JUNE 2022
1930: Berliners concerned about the future (Neue Nationalgalerie)
Here is a summary (and to some degree a review) of the recent tour to Europe to Hamburg, Berlin, Vienna, Zurich and Lucerne, all wonderful cities purveying music and opera (and much else) at the highest standard. It was a very happy and companionable group; moving about, visiting museums and listening to music in these great cities was a constant privilege for us all.
Andrew Neill, prodigious music lover, writer on music and expert on Elgar and Strauss (president of the British Strauss Society to boot) has generously written and sent me a critique of most of the performances we attended so I have sprinkled this summary with many of his remarks, full of insights, and rather more critical that I have been. Thanks Andrew!
On 11 June, twelve of us gathered in Hamburg at the Hotel Henri in the centre of the city, a short walk from the Elbe. We found the Henri added something special with its decor,, spacious rooms and friendly reception area where you could eat, drink or just lounge any time of the day or night, and help your self on an honour system to something to eat or drink. I should say no doubt Judy will hold different memories towards the Henri – bound to constant enquires and vigilance to locate her missing luggage.
In the evening Claudia took us to VLET restaurant with its view directly on to the river – a welcome dinner, almost at water level, where the food was delicious and we sampled copious amounts of Vlet Cuveè Rot and Vlet Grauburgunder before walking back to the Henri for a much needed sleep for those of us who had just arrived from Australia.
On Sunday morning, 12th, we set off with the sounds of Sunday morning bells ringing across the city for a walking tour of the inner part of the city in the excellent and humorous hands of our guide Jutta. The tour of the old Speicherstadt was fascinating with its grim warehouses and enclosed waterways, and moving to the modern residential district Hafen City, and finishing up at the amazing new Elbe Philharmonie, from the outside at least, looking like a ship about to embark down the river, maybe the most impressive new hall for classical music since the Sydney Opera House.
Our first performance that night, was at the Hamburg State Opera, rebuilt in the 1960s and in plain functional style from the traditional opera house destroyed during WW2. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro was a revival of Stefan Herheim’s controversial but also much praised production featuring a box-type set covered in every direction in Mozart’s musical scores. Costumes, movement and settings were essentially of the period of the opera’s creation, but the presentation was totally original, almost like a toy theatre. But this eccentric appearance in
no way compromised strong characterisation of all key parts. While none of us had seen a Figaro like this before, it removed itself from a traditional comedy of manners and strongly brought out the clashes and conflicts that often get smoothed over. The most striking element to me was the
Marriage of Figaro – end of first act
presence of most of the characters onstage most of the time. It resulted in everyone on stage knowing and responding to what was happening in real time. I found this both entertaining and revealing though some of us found this confusing. Some also found the orchestra ensemble not quite up to the mark – not me with my defective hearing – but the singing and characterisation were good except for a lumbering Cherubino completely out of character.
We met Jutta again on Monday morning for an audio guided boat trip down the Elbe, past the huge container wharf infrastructure on the south side and premium residential districts on the north. Her commentary was informative and so interesting to add to our knowledge and an easy way to learn more: cold and windy sailing down river but warming up coming back with the wind behind us.
With much anticipation we headed to the Elbe Philharmonie for our concert that night. We entered through the red original foundation up an endless curving escalator to the top of the new section with magnificent views of the city and the river in all directions from a balcony around the whole building. Then an endless successive flights of light timber coloured stairs that make walking up SOH stairs like a doddle in comparison. The main auditorium itself, again finished in light coloured wood is very impressive and has a fine acoustic. The program scheduled was rather uninteresting – disappointing that something more dynamic was not available. The main piece, Schoenberg’s Pelleas and Melisande seemed a heavy dreary work with little textural and rhythmic variation. The other pieces were popular orchestral show pieces as if it was for an audience strolling in the park.
As we emerged down the countless steps and never ending escalator, we thought it a spectacular but curiously user-unfriendly building.