Topic: Renovation of London's Royal Festival Hall appears to be a success

How are Festival Hall's acoustic's shaping up?
A year on, how are the Festival Hall's acoustics shaping up?

David Cairns
Just over a year ago, the Royal Festival Hall in London reopened after being shut for nearly two years, during which time the interior of the auditorium (and much else as well) was refurbished with a view to transforming an acoustic that had become notorious for its lack of warmth.

To the casual eye it may look much as it used to, though you notice that the aisles aren’t carpeted as they were before, and there is more space between the rows, so that concertgoers sitting in the stalls no longer have to adopt the foetal position, knees drawn up towards their chests — but what of the sound? How different is that?

As someone for whom the Festival Hall became a second home almost from its first opening 57 years ago, I was rarely bothered by its dryness. I had some of the best musical experiences of my life there, up in the Grand Tier (where, as in many auditoriums, the sound was at its fullest and most immediate): Schubert’s Great C major with Beecham and the RPO, Monteux and the LSO in the Symphonie Fantastique, the LPO and Tennstedt in Mahler 2. Dry the hall may have been, but that didn’t prevent

the Leningrad Philharmonic’s brass section (massed together, horns not separate) making the sound ricochet audibly off the opposite boxes in the triple fortes of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.

Besides, the ear quickly adjusts to most acoustics — even to those of the old Glyndebourne theatre, so unresonant that, for a few minutes, listening to the violins was as painful as having your skin rubbed with sandpaper. I got used to the RFH and missed its clarity when I heard music in halls whose acoustics, like those of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, were a byword for excellence.

All the same, the consensus was that something needed to be done, and it has been. Without doubt, the sound is warmer, fuller, all over the hall, and there is greater physical impact — a quality essential to true musical experience, as Berlioz argued when he wrote that music in mid-19th century Paris was habitually performed in spaces too big for it: “You hear but don’t vibrate [on entend, on ne vibre pas] — and one must vibrate with the instruments in order to experience genuine musical sensations.” Impact and performances of exceptional force and vitality were what made the Beethoven concerts given in the 900-seat Cadogan Hall by Stephen Kovacevich and the London Mozart Players (the withdrawal of whose grant was one of the Arts Council’s biggest blunders) among the most inspiring I have been to in the past year.

Impact is what you get in the new Festival Hall. The defining moment for me, sitting in the stalls, came during the opening movement of Mahler’s Third, at a Philharmonia concert under Esa-Pekka Salonen shortly after the hall reopened, when the cellos responded to the long trombone solo with their poignant sforzato G, and the note rang out and I vibrated with it (as I didn't at the Albert Hall in Abbado’s performance with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra a few weeks later).

This impact is not confined to the front of the stalls. You receive it even right at the back, under the overhang, an area traditionally so dead, so decibel-starved that Nicholas Snowman, when he was manager of the hall, seriously considered blocking it off completely, as part of planned changes that were mooted but not carried out. I sat there the other day during a rehearsal for the Philharmonia’s Brahms cycle under Lorin Maazel and realised at once how different the sound was from when I had last been there, years before (an experience subsequently avoided): much more live, more immediate, and not only when the whole orchestra was playing full out. In the finale of the Fourth Symphony, in two of the variations just before the flute solo,the timpani’s repeated piano-diminuendo notes carried straight to where I was sitting.

The plaintive solo itself reached me full and rounded, its every nuance registered physically. A few variations later, in the bar just before the change of time signature, the trombones’ pianissimo chord was as clear as if I had been sitting just in front of them. And where the slow movement’s great tune returns in eight parts, in that saturated string sonority that Brahms loved, the sound glowed as it surely would not have done in the old days. The alterations — among many others, the acoustic reflectors over the platform (made of “lightly tensioned fabric”) and, above them, the new “timber-clad concrete ceiling” — have particularly enhanced the lower instruments: cello, double bass, contrabassoon.

I was struck by this at the recent concert given by Ivan Fischer and the marvellous Budapest Festival Orchestra. The hushed opening bars of Dvorak’s cello concerto — deep clarinets and bassoons, violas, cellos, basses, whispered drum roll — had a startling pungency. Throughout, the concerto’s kaleidoscopic colours ravished the ear (perhaps intensified by the seating of the orchestra, with cellos in the middle, basses at the back of the platform and tuba next to bassoons). The interplay between soloist (Pieter Wispelwey) and Dvorak’s aviary of woodwind was a constant delight, but no less remarkable was the way the 14 instruments of Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks held their own in the hall. The second movement’s chirpy staccatos had the tang and tactile presence of violins playing in a small room.

Conductors appear to be in no doubt about the benefits, not least an increase in the hall’s reverberation period from about 1.7 seconds to 2.25. “It wasn’t always a pleasure to play here, but it is now” (Simon Rattle); “You don’t recognise the sound — what used to be dead is very lively now” (Vladimir Jurowski, chief conductor of the London Philharmonic, one of the hall’s resident orchestras); “There is more air around the notes we play, everything sounds more attractive” (Vladimir Ashkenazy).

What of the orchestral musicians, the people who make our rapturous experiences possible? They seem less enchanted, at least the string players I talked to. The hall was renowned as a place where you felt isolated, able to hear yourself but not what was going on around you. At most there is now a grudging “a bit better”, though still nothing like playing in the Vienna Musikverein. But Larry Kirkegaard, the hall’s acoustician, is working on this with the orchestras, and we must hope things will improve. For the rest of us, what has already been achieved is a great gain: in Rattle’s words, a space where music “sounds natural”.