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.
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