Ugly heckle disrupts the idyll of Austria's Schubertiade

One of the points of the Schubertiade – the music festival held in a tiny Austrian village each August – is that little about its ethos changes from year to year. So when, this week, an audience member shouted at a British singer that he should “learn German” it made headlines across Europe.

The festival is a staid affair. Gone are the days when Schubert’s were the only notes allowed within the walls of the pretty wooden concert hall in Schwarzenberg, in the Bregenzerwald region of Austria. But the audience – quite a few dressed in traditional dirndl and leather – are a sober crowd. They clap, they don’t shout.

And then, out of the blue, a stoutly built member of the audience did just that, bellowing at the British tenor, Ian Bostridge: “Bitte lernen Deutsch.” Bostridge continued with his final encore and then did something equally unprecedented at Schwarzenberg – jumping off the stage to confront the heckler before marching him on to the platform and inviting him to speak. The man did not get very far: his own performance was drowned out by boos.

Mental illness or ugly nationalism? The festival organisers discouraged the latter as a motive. Which one hopes to be the case, if only because the Schubertiade is such a winning melting pot of international musical talent.

The following evening the Russian-German pianist Igor Levit hobbled onto the stage having twisted his leg hiking in the surrounding mountains. His performance of the last three Beethoven sonatas showed a performer who had thought deeply about every note, every phrase, arc, section and movement of these towering, mysterious works.

That careful intellectualism – coupled with his ability to conjure such hushed sounds from the keys – made one wonder whether he could also rise to the passionate peaks of the music. It turned out he could.

The next afternoon came a Schöne Müllerin of understated charm and intelligence. The formula at Schwarzenberg may change little each year, but its presiding organising intelligence for more than 40 years, Gerd Nachbauer, has an undoubted eye for spotting developing talent.

Mauro Peter, a reasonably local boy making very good, managed the innocence of the first half as effectively as the suspicion, jealousy and anger of the second half. The pianist, Helmut Deutsch, was hunched, precise and sensitive.

The Minetti Quartet played the Mozart and Brahms clarinet quintets with Jörg Widmann. The Brahms was compelling: alternately sharply intense and darkly sensuous.

Finally, the Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka gave an operatic account of Schubert’s Winterreise with the self-effacing pianist, Wolfram Rieger. She has a big voice and the performance grew in dramatic effect as the cycle progressed. I can’t speak to her German pronunciation, but there was only enthusiastic applause at the end.

With that – the final evening recital – the festival packs up and moves to its other home, Hohenems. And the cows come down from the mountain pastures and reclaim the streets of Schwarzenberg.

Schubertiade 2017 Review

Out in the fields, little changes from year to year. Farmers are still drying their hay and collecting their wood. The cows are still tinkling and clanging in the high alps, waiting their turn to come down to the valley. There is a kind of bustling beauty all around.

And at the Schubertiade festival in Schwarzenberg, in the middle of all this bucolic loveliness, little changes either. The formula works: bring the best musicians in the world to this little village in southern Austria in late August and an audience will magically appear each evening.

They will have spent the day walking in the hills and mountains. They may have had an early evening bowl of soup and glass of grüner veltliner. But at 8pm sharp they will be sitting hushed and attentive for the music. Nor does the music change much from year to year. Unless I’ve missed someone, the most contemporary composer to feature all week was Roger Quilter (1877–1953), who wrote evocative Edwardian art songs.

It would be easy, in other words, to criticise the Schubertiade. But it is what it is – and what it is, is rare and rather wonderful.

This year I arrived in time for the first of two recitals by the Russian-German pianist, Igor Levit: two Schubert masterpieces sandwiching the Eroica Variations of Beethoven. The Schubert pieces were studies in contrasts: the Allegretto D915 sounding almost like a fantasy, such was its freedom and looseness; the penultimate sonata, D959, more rhythmically structured. The second movement was heart-tuggingly tender.

Tuesday brought a brio-filled Dvořák quintet and a beautifully executed Schubert Octet with velvety playing by the French clarinettist Paul Meyer.

On Wednesday it was the turn of the Emerson Quartet and two late Beethoven string quartets, Ops 132 and 130. There is so much unresolved pain and questioning in these works that they need to sound raw and unsettling as well as sublime. In Op 132, the Emersons sounded a little too polished and polite. They changed gears for Op 130 and by the time they reached the wildest and most tortured fugue in history – the Grosse Fugue – they sounded possessed.

On my final night, Igor Levit was back for the Goldberg Variations. The opening Aria was played in poetry rather than prose, and with such ever-changing ornamentation that we could almost have been listening to improvisation. Levit plays with liquid delicacy and thoughtfulness. By the time he reached the end of the painfully intense Adagio 25th variation he looked utterly drained. Somehow he dug deep to find the energy to finish the work off.

The variations demand complete concentration for an audience, never mind the pianist. One measure of a great performance is how completely the figure sitting at the keyboard can spellbind the listeners. For the best part of an hour and a half Levit did just that. He is on his way to becoming a great pianist.

And so another Schubertiade visit drew to a close. The conservatism of the environs is deceptive. Look carefully at the landscape around the villages and you’ll see strikingly contemporary design and craft. Eat in the surrounding hotels and restaurants and you’ll become aware this is an area with much small-scale organic food production. Many of the villages in the Bregenzerwald are powered by renewable energy. Small-c conservatism blends with rather contemporary conservation. And, while the repertoire is hardly experimental, young performers such as Levit are finding new ways of playing and thinking about the greatest of all music

CLAUS MOSER, 1922-2015. A REFUGEE, PUBLIC SERVANT. AND PIANIST

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 12 SEPTEMBER 2015

My friend Claus Moser died on September 4. Many obituaries and tributes have tried to do justice to a remarkable life. He arrived as a refugee - fleeing persecution - in this country in 1936. He rewarded this givingof sanctuary wth a career of extraordinary public service to the UK. What irony in the timing of his death, with the current British Government so stubbornly mean-minded in giving refuge to the Claus Mosers of today.

Read More

SUMMER COURSES IN FRANCE

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 01 MARCH 2015

This year, for the first time in several years, I'm not going to be migrating south in June to attend the annual Lot piano camp. At the time the redoubtable Anne Brain was taking her bookings last winter there was too much uncertainty about the future shape of my working life (much clearer now: I step down as editor of the Guardian after 20 years and became both Princple of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, in October as well as the chair of the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian. 

Read More

BACK TO PIANO CAMP

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 22 AUGUST 2014

Was back for this year's piano camp in the Lot Valley - with a new tutor, the chamber musician, Susan Tomes.  A few changes this year: instead of the course taking place at Anne Brain's house, we moved into a local hotel, Le Vert - a really sweet hotel surrounded by its own orchards and run by Eva and Bernard Philippe. 

Read More