Classical : SINTRA FESTIVAL Lisbon, Portugal

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
You approach via a lane that twists upwards through a misty forest strewn with Gothic ruins. At the top of the mountain you find a palace reminiscent of mad King Ludwig's in Bavaria. The interior feels as though the royal inhabitants (who fled in 1910) have just gone out for a stroll: all the paraphernalia of a gracious life is waiting, just casually set aside.

The auditorium itself is an apricot ballroom flanked by torches held by life-size turbaned Turks. The pianist, Tania Achot, is a tiny Russian with a very big tone who plays Rachmaninov con fuoco, luxuriating in his rich chromaticism. Half the audience are tourists fresh from the beach, the rest have the hallmarks of fading aristocracy: proud profiles, old lace, flashing diamonds. Welcome to Pena Palace, one of the exotic venues of the Sintra Festival, in the hills above Lisbon.

Next day's performance, by Dame Moura Lympany, takes place a few miles down the road in an 18th-century Versailles look-alike. Mirrors, chandeliers, friezes and an audience of the same strange mix. Dame Moura may now be past her technical peak, but she brings out the poetry of Chopin's Preludes with serene assurance. Continuing with Rachmaninov's Preludes, and ending with "Clair de lune" as an encore, she sets the seal on a quintessentially romantic evening.

The following afternoon the action moves to the garden of the Quinta da Piendade, where the Moscow Piano Quartet play in a flowery hollow whose excellent acoustic is enhanced by birdsong, and by occasional muted wails from the Formula One racetrack on the coast at Estoril. Moving among the guests in the interval is a tall, commanding woman whose house this is, and who has every reason to look triumphant.

Without the Marquesa de Cadaval, a spry 95, this long-established festival would not have existed and musical history might have taken a different course. After growing up in Venice in a house where Puccini, Ravel, Diaghilev and Nijinsky all dropped by, she embarked on a career of musical patronage whose beneficiaries have included Artur Rubinstein, Poulenc and Stravinsky. She harboured Vladimir Ashkenazy and his wife after their flight from Russia, and it was under her roof in Sintra that Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline du Pre spent their honeymoon. The young Muscovites performing in her garden last week were representative of her long crusade - pursued without a break during the dark days of the Salazar regime - on behalf of musicians from Russia.

At this time of year, Portugal is alive with music. Coimbra has just celebrated its piano week, while across the Tagus the Capuchos Festival, based in a sister-monastery to the one in Sintra, is just getting underway. Jose Tacanho, the live-wire lutenist who has run this show for the last 20 years, sees it as complementary to the Marquesa's die-hard romanticism. His programme sounds oddly familiar: Steve Martland, Laurie Booth, Gavin Bryar's The Sinking of The Titanic ... All the better, though, under a Lisboan sun.

n Capuchos Festival: (00351 1 290 2520). The Sintra Festival continues through August with dance events: tel 00351 1 923 1895