Carry on up the Danube

Radio 3 has gone native, with a week of live music broadcasts from Austro-Hungarian venues. Sue Gaisford joins the team
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Radio 3 has been gadding about. It happened before - Poland, Berlin, Minneapolis and Prague have all received close attention, while broadcasts from the Tanglewood Festival won the station a Sony gold award. Still, the just-concluded "Danube Week" has been the most ambitious foreign jaunt yet. Since last Sunday, Radio 3 and its listeners have been steeped in Austro-Hungarian culture, with broadcasts coming live from a dozen venues along the Danube between the Austrian city of Linz and the Hungarian capital.

John Evans, head of classical music at Radio 3, dreamed up the project, clearly dear to him. "It reflects my attitude to the position of Radio 3," he said. "A station like Classic FM relies on a person in a studio playing records, but we put great emphasis on live music, supported by speech programmes to complement the concerts."

Seeking to fill the gap between the Proms and the autumn concert seasons, Evans discovered that Schoenberg's birthday was to be celebrated in the new Schoenberg Centre in Vienna last Sunday. The Vienna State Opera had planned a particularly star-studded performance of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos on Monday and the Bruckner Festival at Linz and the Haydntage at Eisenstadt both occurred, miraculously, in the same week.

There was then a lull before the Hungarian opera season began. However, when Evans approached the authorities in Budapest, they decided to bring forward their opening by a week, ending his project with a dazzling performance of Un Ballo in Maschera. The last remaining gap was to be filled by the BBC Philharmonic, with a concert of British and Hungarian music in the Liszt Academy in Budapest: the internationally famous pianist Peter Donohoe would play a Bartok concerto.

Technically, said Evans, he depended on the enthusiastic co-operation of the Austrian and Hungarian radio stations and on state-of-the-art DAT recording equipment. It gets complicated here: a kind of refined e-mail system allows sound-files to be communicated via landlines and satellite directly to London. Happily the boffins understand it; I was dazzled.

At 6pm I arrived at Eisenstadt's railway station, in the flat lands of sunflowers, bandy-wheeled tractors and slow pony-carts which border the vast Neusiedler See. At the gateway of the yellow Esterhazy Palace, a deafening blast of trumpets rang out, clearing the head and lifting the heart. Previously, coming through Customs into Schwechat Airport; a brass band had burst suddenly and noisily into life, filling the arrivals hall with hearty oom-pahs, while children frolicked, a dog barked with more enthusiasm than rhythm and graceful girls in billowing pastel frocks hoisted banners aloft. They were welcoming someone just behind me, a Viennese girl returning home after a year abroad. It seemed an apt start to a long weekend of strenuous music-making and more dramas than you'd get in a month of soaps.

Into the palace and up the stairs to the magnificent Haydnsaal. On the orders of Haydn its marble floor was replaced with resonant timbers. It is high baroque, three storeys of extravagant gilt swagging and dim sepia portraits. The hall was full but Saulius Sondeckis, the Lithuanian conductor, was late: "BBC presentation," muttered Evans in nervous explanation. The orchestra tuned up, spindly "travelling" microphones poking from their midst like drunken candles on a birthday-cake. Everyone now had an A: everyone played it, quite a lot. Then, in Sondeckis dashed, beaming - an unlikely cross between Roy Hattersley and Frankie Howerd - and off we went. As the first bright notes of a Haydn overture bounced into the lofty space, a BBC voice whispered, with satisfaction: "The Albert Hall it ain't".

THE HOTEL wake-up call played Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. To BBC headquarters, a bedroom in the Mailbergerhof Hotel, where a meeting was under way. Evans invited the team to introduce themselves. The senior presenter kicked off with mock solemnity "My name is Humphrey Burton. I am a reformed alcoholic." The others followed: Adam Gatehouse, the perennially cheerful producer; Andrew Kurowski, editor, special events; the other announcer, Stephanie Hughes, slight and pretty; Wendy Harris, the brilliant sound engineer; Fiona Shelmerdine, producer of Donald MacLeod's entertaining and erudite Sound Stories and Brian Kay's Sunday morning programme; Marvin Ware, a technical wizard in a Tomato Head T-shirt; Huw Robinson, technical co- ordinator and producer; Jessica Isaacs and Ivan Hewitt, the Music Matters partnership.

The last four were Kate Bolton, producer of Spirit of the Age, the assistants Alice Pearson and Felix Carey (who is later to risk his life and save a whole concert by wriggling under an alarmed security gate to retrieve a BBC car from a locked car-park) and, master-minding the entire event, Kate Heeley, who looks about 13 and straight out of Enid Blyton's The Famous Five but to whom the entire team, and I, would willingly have entrusted our lives.

SNATCHED a moment with Humphrey Burton, who spent yesterday recording links from an excursion-boat up the Danube - tricky stuff: he got them to switch off the musak, but not the commentary. He has known Vienna for 40 years and was most enthusiastic about this project: "It's good to reveal an alternative to the chocolate-box, air-brushed, Johann Strauss image foisted on visitors."

EDITING meetings went like this:

"Haydn had to wear white stockings and tie his hair back; I read it in his contract."

"Yes, but a few minutes before I'm on the boat to Linz, so do we need a conceit?"

"The significant thing is that Schoenberg is 124 tomorrow."

"Quite a volte-face when you think how the city cold-shouldered him in the 1920s."

"Schwarzkopf wouldn't perform Mahler. Said it was just Jewish cafe-music."

"This Ligeti piece looks tricky: I hope they can play it"

"Is it "Pest" or "Pesht"? We could always phone Classic FM."

"Why is everyone drinking black tea, when I went out specially to buy milk?"

"JESUS!" said Kate Bolton. We were in the old library at the ancient Cistercian monastery of Heiligenkreuz and she'd broken the window-catch. It was pouring and it had taken all afternoon to get here. Christopher Page was recording a piece about plain-song but it was getting dark, there was no electric light and our guardian monk, Patrus Paulus, would be back any second. I lurked, inspecting the vellum books - Sermones Ascetici, Divina Commedia and, surprisingly, a German translation of a trip on a Danube pleasure-boat, by one A Quinn. Bet Humphrey's read it.

Back at the hotel, the television showed strong women in strong swimwear, exercising on something called "Bold Strider".

TO AUSTRIAN Radio (ORF) where Brian Kay, genial, competent and dashing in Mr Toad waistcoat, was presenting his show. A zither-player with professor- Branestawm hair nervously tuned his instrument, not encouraged by Kay's cheery assurance that half a million people were listening.

In Schoenberg centre Stephanie Hughes was announcing in an icy-calm voice, despite a last-minute hitch involving DAT machines. The hall is shaped like a blunt arrow-head to accommodate a pillar which, absurdly, supports Placido Domingo's penthouse. Soulful Mahler was followed by piercingly shrill Webern. I imagined radios being snapped off, while managing to resist clapping my hands over my ears.

ORF's studio five was buzzing. Stephanie rehearsed the script, stopwatch in hand; the Music Matters team was interviewing a Scrammelmusik band, which included a Viennese chromatic button-accordion; Huw Robinson was checking communication with London. In the ORF shop they were selling the Diana video.

On leaving the inter-city express at Linz, I went to Brucknerhaus concert hall, where even the carpets had been hoovered in straight lines. Linz concert-goers arrived, arrayed in glittering finery. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra opened the Brucknerfest with the Honegger Symphonie Liturgique; they were unbelievably loud.

Outside, grassy slopes led from the hall down to the fast-flowing Danube. More than 100 loudspeakers, swinging from massive cranes, relayed Bruckner's 3rd symphony, free, to a huge, silent crowd, while television pictures appeared on a vast screen on the further bank. If Radio 3 was to broadcast to Austria, I mused, what a colossal audience it would have. The music, pure, undistorted and enormous, made the ground tremble.

DANUBE Week also included conversation pieces about Viennese Culture - a big subject. I visited the Hapsburg treasury, the Schatzkammer, to be reminded of the fabulous splendour of the dynasty. Then by metro to Schonbrunn Palace, built by Empress Maria Theresa but now celebrating a more glamorous inhabitant, Franz Josef's consort Elizabeth, known as Sissy. She was the mother of crown Prince Rudolf, whose death at Mayerling was a distant cause of the First World War. But at Schonbrunn she is the subject of a film starring Romy Schneider. The two have become confused: Sissy's clothes and Romy's film outfits are both displayed. I resisted, without difficulty, buying a Sissy Sindy doll.

In the Jewish museum I found a confusion of holy objects rescued from synagogues destroyed in 1938 and a series of deeply ambiguous holograms, with nobody prepared to interpret them. Dr Manfred Schmutzer, professor of psychology, explained that the emigration and murder of the Jews led to a 30-year post-war diminution of intellectual life in Austria, but the election of Kreisky, an agnostic Jew, as prime minister in 1970 had heralded a kind of artistic renaissance - of which the Linz Festival was an example.

In the 1980s some slumbering anti-Semitism revived, following the foundation of Jurg Haider's right-wing, so-called Freedom Party; but now, as in much of Europe, racism focused on other immigrants - from Turkey and Hungary - whose arrival threatened the livelihood of the lower-paid.

To the Vienna State Opera. A classic Radio 3 panic. The Opera House management had given away the box booked for commentary. Kate negotiated its return, but some innocent Viennese were booked into it too. Would I sit there if she could persuade one to take my stalls seat instead? It was miraculous to be there at all: every night people are happy to stand, and they only pay pounds 1.50 for the privilege. A man in black tie was paid off to lower his sights and I slid in next to Humphrey, as the lights dimmed and he spoke into what looked like a car-radio on the rim of the box.

On instruction from Wendy, I muttered to a confused woman on the other side that she'd be safe, but would she mind not clapping? She agreed to sit quietly. I took the pages of Humphrey's script as he finished them. He warned that he might need me to switch on an extra torch: his research suggested that Edita Gruberova would receive a five-minute ovation and he had a script ready. Sure enough, he did need the torch, but the switch was stiff: so I held it. I'd hold a torch for him anywhere.

The opera was beautiful. Its story concerned a threatened operatic disaster when best-laid plans were thwarted, but hard work and goodwill brought about a grand conclusion. As I left for home and the team left for Budapest, it struck me that they could not have chosen a better theme.