Acoustical Notes: A perfect venue for chamber music
Thursday 08 October 1998
The acoustics are amazing. The orchestral double-basses are given a deep, velvety resonance, the cellos are so warm and rich that you feel you could reach out and fill your arms with their tonal opulence; the violins create a sheen of soft silk. A pleasing reverberation imparts a glow to the woodwind, and the trumpets are as brightly regal as the trombones are deeply sonorous.
The overall patina of sound suits admirably those 18th- and 19th-century composers whose names dominate the auditorium. But the more spiky dissonance of 20th-century music is less well served, for the focus becomes muddied, and the effect can be aurally tiring.
This does not happen in Symphony Hall, Boston, Massachusetts, the world's perfect hall, even finer than New York's illustrious Carnegie Hall. Its design is not dissimilar to the great Dutch venue, although its character is simpler, plainer, unpretentious. Yet in a sense this is belied by the huge organ which towers above the orchestra and dominates the rostrum. It can makes a massive impact, and its pedals can sound like thunder. Yet when the musicians of the Boston Symphony play a delicate, impressionistic 20th-century score by Debussy or Ravel, the violins and woodwind are projected with captivating delicacy and transparency of texture, as if the music were being painted on fine gauze.
London possesses three major halls for symphony concerts. The Royal Albert Hall, home of the Proms, is most suitable for large-scale events, preferably using a big choir as well as the orchestra. Thinking of the reverberation, Sir Thomas Beecham once quipped, "Every young composer should have his music first performed at the Albert Hall, and then he would be sure of an opportunity of hearing it at least twice!" But that famous pre-war echo effect has now been all but tamed by modern technology.
The post-war Royal Festival Hall has a notoriously dry acoustic, which can be unflattering to opulent 19th-century music. But smaller-scaled 18th-century pieces and conversely 20th-century music by Stravinsky, which needs plenty of bite, can be very effective there. London's newest hall, the Barbican, with its agreeable woody finishes, gives a gloriously full sound to most 19th- and 20th-century music, but the effect is not ideally transparent, especially for a bright, fresh earlier work like Vivaldi's Four Seasons, where one needs to hear the harpsichord come through - so basic a feature of baroque music.
London also has two splendid smaller halls: St John's Smith Square, whose acoustic warmth is ideal for a chamber orchestra and smaller instrumental and vocal groups; and - what is the jewel in London's crown - the Wigmore Hall, the most perfect chamber-music venue in the world. It has a wonderful mural, stretching up and over the proscenium arch, which is a joy to look at when listening to great music.
Whether you go to Wigmore to hear a solo piano (best from the back of the hall), a combination of violin or cello partnered by piano or harpsichord, a classical guitar recital or a string quartet, the sounds that reach the ear combine warmth and intimacy in perfect proportions. To hear Schubert's Octet there is a unique experience, as the eight players, woodwind, horn and strings, spread right across the stage, pass Schubert's lovely melodies back and forth between one another, to provide one of the supreme delights of concert-going.
Ivan March is one of the authors of the `Penguin Guide to Bargain Compact Discs' (Penguin, pounds 14.99)
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