Tuesday 27 January 2015

Beethoven and Lutoslawski at the Alfredo Kraus Auditorio

There are two types of listeners to classical music. Those who understand the music and those who enjoy it. Unashamedly, I admit I belong to the second category. Whether tonal or atonal, chromatic or not, I understand little of the internal structure of a piano concerto and so I am, gladly, left with the pure joy of listening without the need to make sense of it. I always believed that this ignorance is a blessing since it opened up contemporary modern music to me which I find more evocative than the simple harmonies of classical music.

This means that I am also always searching for new sounds. Key to good orchestral sounds are the acoustics of a concert hall. There are halls that have a stunning clarity (Chamber Music Hall in Berlin) and those sounding like an ornamented barn hall (Schauspielhaus in Berlin). Then there are those that echo the sound, bouncing it back from the walls like ping pong balls (Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool) and those that act like a flu, sucking the life out of any orchestre (St David's Hall in Cardiff).

Once in a while, I visit a new concert hall and discover a little gem. That was the case when I recently attended a concert at the Alfredo Kraus Auditorio at Las Palmas in Gran Canaria. Built at the outer edge of Las Canteras, the long beautifully curved beach of Las Palmas, the Auditorio looks precariously placed at the edge of the water, resisting the (at times) windy and stormy sea lapping at its feet. Whilst it was all force of nature outside, inside it was a breathtaking calm. The auditorium is sloping gently down to the stage, which is backed up by a clear glass wall opening up a view at the sea.

View towards the stage - the Alfredo Kraus Auditorio

Whilst the architecture is stunning, with clear modern lines, the acoustics blew me away. First piece on the evening's programme was Beethoven's piano concerto No. 3. The sound was neither bombastic nor faint or fragmented. It was round, full and accomplished, an organic whole that can only emerge from a carefully balanced hall. In addition, I had the distinct feeling that nothing was lost nor anything stressed at the expense of anything else. In short, acoustic perfection. So much so, that for the first time, I noticed the sharp and somewhat disconcerting harsh sound of the Steinway Grand Piano which was curiously mis-matched to the warm orchestral sound. The sound of the Steinway has often been criticised but I never, until now, noticed how ill-suited its overly sharp sound can be when accompanied by orchestras that achieve a warm glowing sound.

This was certainly not the fault of the pianist, who delivered a flawless performance of Beethoven's concerto. David Fray delivered a technically brilliant, sensitive playing.

If the Auditorio was impressive at a Beethoven concerto, would it stand up to a modern contemporary piece? Most definitely. The interval was followed by a piece by Lutoslawski which revealed the stunning qualities of the hall, a perfect balance of clarity and warmth. Lutoslawski's Little Suite (rev. 1951) was then rounded off by a sensual and beautiful rendering of Elgar's Enigma Variations.

Being impressed by the Auditorio's acoustics is one thing, it's more difficult to pinpoint exactly how this sound is achieved. There are some great concert halls but their qualities are rarely that perfectly balanced. In the Auditorio, part of the perfect acoustics must have been the fact that it has no back stage which many concert halls have (due to the fact that they are converted theatre halls) where the sound travels, disappears or bounces back, magnified but often in a mushy kind of way. The Auditorio has in fact a stage that is almost placed within the auditorium, with little in the way of space for the sound to go but forward.

Whatever its architectural secret, the acoustics were overwhelming and it goes to show that modern concert halls can achieve stylistic beauty and acoustic perfection. A great night to remember!

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