Six Of The Best Classical Concert Halls In Central Europe

Andrew Barton  ·  30 / 12 / 2016

Witness incredible acoustics and mind blowing architecture in some of Central Europe's most famous and best classical music concert halls, that draws in crowds from all over the world. 

Munich

The National Theatre on Max-Joseph-Platz is home to the classical royal flush of the Bavarian State Opera, the Bavarian State Orchestra and the Bavarian State Ballet. Construction was first ordered by the King of Bavaria and began in 1811 because the Cuvilliés Theatre in the adjacent Residence Palace was too small. It was designed with the 1782 Odéon in Paris as its template. Fires in 1817 and 1823 resulted in rebuilds, but it was during the reign of Ludwig II 1865-1886 that the theatre rose to particular prominence when the royal infatuation with Richard Wagner resulted in world premieres of four of the composer’s masterworks, including Tristan und Isolde. An Allied air raid in 1943 gutted the building, leading to another rebuild. The restored neo-classical design today houses the world’s third largest stage covering 2,500m2.

Also of interest is the Gasteig cultural centre that acts as home to the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra – its first permanent venue since its original home, the Tonhalle, was completely destroyed in 1944. The centre was opened in 1985 and is built on the site of the former Bürgerbräukeller – the site of Hitler’s 1923 Beer Hall Putsch and the scene of Georg Elsner’s 1939 assassination attempt on Hitler. The Philharmonic Hall has an intimate atmosphere but is said to have poor acoustic qualities, although the Kleiner Konzertsaal is a good acoustic venue for chamber music.

Berlin

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The Berlin Philharmonic is considered to be among the very best in the world, if not the best, helped considerably by playing in what is certainly one of the best Central European classical concert halls built in the latter half of the 20th century. Herbert von Karajan ruled the Philharmonic with an iron fist from 1955 right up until shortly before his death in 1989 when its reputation was firmly cemented. With its outstanding acoustics the interior design has been frequently copied around the world. 

The appearance of the building itself with its distinctive honey-coloured pitched rooves are the result of subordinating the exterior to the requirements of the interior. Opened in 1963, the design by architect Hans Scharoun, with its curved ceilings and rejection of rectangular organisation and symmetry, provided a new way forward for architectural acoustics: vineyard terracing. By dividing the audience into blocks, the separating walls can be used to redirect more sound to the audience from the sides. The result is almost unparalleled acoustics for a modern concert hall (though acoustics experts believe pre-20th century concert halls provide the best sound, including Berlin’s Konzerthaus on Gendarmenmarkt, which opened in 1821).

Vienna

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The Austrian capital is arguably the most famous city for classical music on the planet, and with its Musikverein and State Opera House it’s with good reason. The home of the Viennese Philharmonic Orchestra, the Musikverein, is undoubtedly among the best Central Europe classical concert halls and is said by world famous conductor Bruno Walter to be the finest concert hall in the world. "It has beauty and power. I had not realized that music could be that beautiful," he’s quoted as saying. The Musikverein opened in 1870 and is a shoebox hall with 1,744 seats. According to the author of Concert Halls and Opera Houses, Leo Beranek, "the superior acoustics of the hall are due to its rectangular shape, its relatively small size, its high ceiling with resulting long reverberation time, the irregular interior surfaces, and the plaster interior."

The Viennese Philharmonic recruits its musicians from the Vienna State Opera, which in turn attracts the top talent from all around the globe. The Vienna State Opera House is located in the very centre of the state capital, having been completed in 1869 in the Neo-Renaissance style by the renowned Czech architect Josef Hlávka. Initially derided by the Viennese as the "the 'Königgrätz' of architecture" (following Austria’s military debacle at the Battle of Königgrätz in 1866), the locals became fond enough of it to ensure a modernised replica was completed in 1955 after the auditorium and stage and 150,000 costumes were immolated during a bombing raid in April 1945. Such is the fame of the Vienna Opera these days that it can sometimes be extraordinarily hard to get tickets. Even the cheap standing room tickets (€2 to 4) sold 80 minutes before each performance can go like hotcakes, especially to the legendary regular clientele, which is pitiless in showing its disapproval of a performance, but even louder in voicing its appreciation.

Prague

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The Czech capital has a number of famous concert halls commensurate with its status as an incubator of world renown musical talent such as Bedřich Smetana, Antonín Dvořák and Leoš Janáček, among others. Foremost among the venues for opera is the National Theatre (which also houses ballet and drama ensembles). Although it was built in 1868 to 1881 primarily as an embodiment of the Czech nation during the height of the Czech revivalist movement rather than on the basis of modern acoustic and visual demands, its acoustics are superb. While sited on an unsurpassed location on the banks of the Vltava River in the centre of the city, the trapezium shape of the land parcel created a real headache for the building’s designers, resulting in fewer seats than originally planned. The grand opening was held in 1881 with the world premiere of Smetana's opera Libuše, but after only 11 performances the theatre was nearly completely destroyed in a fire. A new public collection was initiated which led to a swift reconstruction and re-opening in 1883.

The home of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, the Rudulfinum, is found not too far away also on the banks for the Vltava River, but performances are mostly open to subscription holders only. More accessible to out-of-town classical music lovers are the concerts performed in Smetana Hall at lavishly decorated Art Nouveau masterpiece, the Municipal House. The 1200-seat Smetana Hall has brilliant acoustics and is again a product of the Czech national revival of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Its interior design features sculptural allegories from Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances and Smetana’s My Country.

Salzburg

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Any mention of the town of Salzburg and music in the same breath will automatically trigger associations with the Hollywood blockbuster musical The Sound of Music. And one of the most famous scenes from that film is of the Trapp family singing at the Salzburg Festival in the arcaded Felsenreitschule immediately prior to their escape to a nearby cemetery crypt and finally over the Alps to safety. Built in 1693 by Archbishop Johann Ernst von Thun with three tiers of 96 arcades hewn into the walls of a disused quarry so that people could watch equestrian displays and animal baiting events, the Felsenreitschule was first put to use a theatre venue for the Salzburg Festival in 1926. The first opera production took place in 1948 when Herbert von Karajan conducted Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.

The Felsenreitschule shares its foyer with what is known today as the House for Mozart, formerly the Kleines Festspielhaus (Small Festival Hall), which was the very first venue for Salzburg Festival performances in 1925. Neither the Felsenreitschule nor the Kleines Festspielhaus were suitable for the performance of Mozart’s stage works, so the Kleines Festspielhaus was heavily made over in 2003-2006 to produce excellent acoustics and the best possible sight lines from all seats. One of the reasons from the creation of the House for Mozart was the criticism made of the adjacent Grosses Festspielhaus (Large Festival Hall), created from the former archiepiscopal princely stables in 1956-1960, as it was too large to provide the required intimate setting for Mozart operas. Its stage, for example, is one of the widest in the world, at 100 metres (330 ft) and has an iron stage curtain that weighs 34 tonnes and in the middle is one metre thick, but otherwise it offers ideal acoustic conditions and sight-lines from its 2,179 seats. Guided tours of these three venues are available when performances are not scheduled.

Budapest

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Opera houses are often constructed not simply to showcase a nation’s or a city’s brightest singing talent, but also to demonstrate to the world that the said nation or city has achieved the pinnacle of culture, power and wealth. In this regard, the Budapest Opera House is ranked among the best Central European classical concert halls and one of the best in the world with an opulent interior decorated with paintings and sculptures created by the country’s most-acclaimed artists. Opened in 1884, it’s another Neo-Renaissance building, although its design is more horseshoe than shoebox. While acoustics are often a matter of personal preference, measurements performed in the 1970s by a group of international engineers ranked the Budapest Opera House third in Europe in terms of acoustics after La Scala in Milan and the Palais Garnier in Paris. Most of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra’s performances also take place at the Budapest Opera House. Public tours of the opera house are available in six different languages on a daily basis.

Standard travel guides and travel companies don’t normally offer the opportunity to immerse yourself in the musical cultures of Central European cities. If you want to discover or learn more about the best Central European classical concert halls then we at Go Real Europe will gladly create a customised itinerary that will help you experience the region’s rich classical music offerings.

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