ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 14 SEPTEMBER 2014
For the second year we went to the Schubertiade Festival in Schwarzenberg, in Austria. My review of it for the Guardian is here
You don't go to the Schubertiade just for Schubert. You don't even go just for the music. Imagine the front door of the Wigmore Hall opening not on to a busy, noisy West End street, but straight to a Scottish glen or lake. Music is almost a bonus.
You will have walked the nearby valleys or climbed the mountains in the morning. At 3.13pm precisely, the festival bus will pick you up from your hotel and deposit you at the front door of the wooden Schwarzenberg hall. You will mingle on the terrace, overlooking fields with your fellow concert-goers – a patchwork of leather, felt, satin, dirndl, pleats and long socks. Your mood is mellow as two horn players summon you, almost reluctantly, to your seats. And then the world-class music begins.
Once upon a time, the Schubertiade devoted itself to the main man, the whole man and nothing but the man. Over the years, there has been mission creep, and other composers are now allowed a look in. But, if the programming remains conservative, the performers are also hand picked and seem to rise to the warmth and serious expectations of the audience.
In three and a half days, we managed six concerts. Two of the great Schubert song cycles – a drama-laden Winterreise sung by Michael Volle and a cooler Die Schöne Müllerin from Benjamin Bruns with wonderful accompaniment by Gerold Huber. Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake basked in Brahms and ventured into lesser-known Schubert. Sabine Meyer played the silkiest imaginable Mozart Clarinet Quintet before joining others for a grand and often beguiling Schubert Octet.
But for me the highlight was the Schubert Quintet, played by an ad hoc group of string players brought together by the Argentine-born cellist, Sol Gabetta. They had never played the work together before, and it showed – in the best possible way. This was not a much-toured workhorse, but something freshly and uniquely minted in this Vorarlberg valley. On the surface, nothing much changes at the Schubertiade. But some of it is sparklingly new.
I thought I detected more English-speakers in the audience this year, which may mean the charms of the festival are slowly spreading. If you're thinking of going, the festival will recommend any number of small hotels in the area around Schwartzenberg which are linked to the little bus service that picks up concertgoers each day and drops them back in the evening.
We stayed, as before at the heavenly Schiff Hotel in the little village of Hittisau, about 10 miles away - no more than a few hotels, maybe a dozen shops and mountains all around.
The hotel's been run by the same family, the Metzlers, since the mid 1840s, which may explain the friendly, intimate atmosphere. Antonia Metzler, half of the husband and wife team which owns and runs it, will be behind the reception desk in her jeans early in the morning and helping out in the restaurant in her dirndl late in the evening. The couple built an extension wing - covered in Voralberg wood - a few years ago, with a small swimming pool in a little orchard at the back. Your early morning dip is surrounded, like everything else, by mountains and greenery.
A visit to the tea room in mid afternoon may confirm a feeling of other-timeness of the Schiff. The samovar ticks over in the corner and cakes are lined up on the centre table. It has a sense of an Agatha Christie setting, with a murder due by midnight. But the Bregenzerwald area is distinguished for its contemporary design and the food is sensationally fresh, light and modern. So, not very Poirot after all.
The day runs like this: Breakfast is laid out in two rooms. In one corner there are three middle-aged Englishmen tucking into the slikiest muesli imaginable - even to a Guardian reader - and discussing the previous night's music. In another room there are three Austrian women - the oldest in her eighties, the youngest in her 40s, now living in London - also picking over the concerts they've heard. There are 13 local cheeses laid out on a table. In the distance, home-made jams and breads.
You nod politely at the other guests as you head out for a walk or hike. You can attempt agonising climbs in the mountains or take a cable car to the top and saunter down. Maybe a swim or sauna to recover. And then, at 3.13pm precisely. the festival bus picks you up for the first of two concerts, with maybe a bowl of soup in between.
Then it's back to the hotel for anything between three and five courses, depending on your stamina and how far you walked in the morning.
You fall into conversation with the middle-aged Englishmen. And then the Austrian women. You all go off to the bar, along with the guy who's been behind the reception desk all day. Over drinks you discuss the walking and the lieder. And then totter off to bed. No-one is murdered.
And then the next day, the same.
The Schiff and the Schubertiade have hit ona rather magical formula. Long may it last.