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A magical mystery tour

From Schloss Auersperg in Vienna, where Beethoven performed his first piano trio, to the Esterhaza summer palace, a music festival with a difference takes passengers to special concerts in exquisite venues. Annette Morreau climbs aboard
"To improve the acoustics, we have made this a public concert" seems an improbable remark to read in a festival brochure. But then a tailor-made festival for a mere 140 people with Bruckner's Fourth Symphony on the menu seems pretty improbable, too. If Edinburgh and the Proms appear to dominate the British press exclusively in August, a very different festival can be found gently floating down the Danube, with not a Mozart Kugel or a Strauss waltz in sight.

The cultural tours market is small but crowded. If packaged tours turn your stomach, read on, for Martin Randall Travel appears to have cracked the uncrackable, packaging the unpackageable (those affluent and independent enough to know better) to provide a remarkable seven-day cultural adventure where cherubs meet chamber music. For the price of a week in Edinburgh (or half a week in Salzburg), a festival is brought to you with concerts taking place in some of the most astonishingly beautiful Baroque and Rococo churches, palaces and country houses dotted along the Danube, which relate to the historical and cultural fortunes of the main occupants of the region, the Habsburgs.

The week begins at Passau, a small town dramatically situated over the confluence of the rivers Ilz, Inn and Danube. The 330-foot MS Rousse is our floating hotel: a Dutch-built, Bulgarian-owned, Austrian-managed river cruiser with restaurant to accommodate all the guests at a single sitting, sun deck, swimming pool and comfortable cabins at three levels - the lowest particularly attractive as the lapping water on the windows provides a somnolent background to swans swimming by at nose level. Occasionally, fish seem to tap on the window as water is (deliberately) taken in as ballast to lower the boat through some exceptionally low bridges between Vienna and Bratislava; the hydraulically retracting "bridge" turns out not to be an inebriated hallucination caused by a Screwdriver too many, but an essential ingredient of boat design in this region. The locks, too, especially when navigated at night, suggest grandiose operatic hallucinations - Fidelio particularly, as huge iron gates swing open to reveal a set worthy of any Prisoners' Chorus.

Martin Randall, now operating this Austro-Hungarian Music Festival for its third year, brings with him two lecturers, the art historian Clare Ford-Wille and the indefatigable broadcaster on music, Roderick Swanston, whose wit and enthusiasm appear to know no bounds. As the concerts are exclusive to the boat passengers, with the exception ofBruckner's Fourth, Randall does not "buy in" to existing events, but subcontracts the arranging of concerts to an Austrian music management. This is wise, not only because the logistics of a moving boat and a moving audience are exceptionally complicated, but because many of the venues, chosen particularly for their cultural appropriateness, are rarely used for concerts, and throw up their own particular problems best dealt with on the ground. If there was the occasional spectacular miscalculation, mainly to do with acoustics, we were treated to some of the finest venues imaginable, and through local management introduced to some of the finest young players in the region.

First stop was Vienna, with a couple of concerts; the first in the pinkish marble hall of the Schloss Auersperg, where, we were told, the young Beethoven performed his first piano trio with the great Joseph Haydn in the audience. Beethoven and Haydn were not on this occasion present, but the Wiener Klavier Trio, with its exceptional violinist Wolfgang Redik and pianist Stefan Mendl, gave touching performances of that Beethoven trio and Schubert's E flat major, clearly establishing that the level of music-making on this trip was to be taken very seriously.

The second concert, somewhat oddly entitled "The Second Viennese School" - since when were Kodaly, Bartok and Brahms honorary members? - was given in the most perfectly preserved example of Jugendstil architecture, the Kirche am Steinhof by Otto Wagner. Situated in the grounds of Asylum Steinhof, the principal psychiatric hospital for Lower Austria, its appropriateness in relation to a decaying musical language was underlined (if not undermined) by a completely impossible acoustic with an echo long enough to make the sanest feel schizophrenic.

That night we were transported, appropriately enough, to a very gloomy spot, Bratislava. Buses took us the following day to a concert by the distinguished Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra under its founder, Adam Fischer, given on Haydn's actual turf, the Music Room of the ravishingly beautiful Esterhaza summer palace of Fertod. If Haydn's first London symphony, written after he had left the employment of the Esterhazys, seemed too large for the room, the overture from La Fedelta Premiata, with off-stage horns echoing from the stairs, was perfection. Fertod is famously situated in the middle of nowhere, something that prompted Haydn in 1772 to write his Farewell symphony, complete with final movement for disappearing musicians, to remind the Prince that they all wanted to go home. An encore of this movement sent shivers down the spine.

Next stop was the pretty town of Gyor. Fine performances by the Festetics Quartet - the only quartet in Central Europe specialising in Viennese classical music on period instruments - of Schubert's A minor and Haydn's Emperor were marred by acoustic problems, but these were nothing compared with the acoustic swamp the following day in the vast Esztergom Cathedral. An 11-second delay simply swallowed up the Budapest Concert Orchestra, despite the presence of "the general public". Nevertheless, Bruckner's Fourth, with its slow, wallowing harmonic rhythm, survived magnificently, despite the occasional staggering discord. Further concerts, less acoustically disabled, were given in Schloss Schlosshof, the Primate's Palace in Bratislava, Melk and Linz, with particularly fine performances from the New Budapest String Quartet (Bartok's Sixth Quartet) and the Collegium Viennense in the final showstopper, Mozart's Serenade for 13 wind instruments.

This is not a festival about glitzy stars - you will not hear a Brendel or a Rostropovich - but then you will not find passengers worrying about which diamonds to wear for dinner. This is very much a connoisseurs' festival, where the right programme is matched to the right venue ... for most of the time.

And the passengers? "Ah, yes. Arthur Rubinstein was a superb ping-pong player. He beat me when I was 15," came the rather remarkable comment from an ageing beauty, while "Did you ever come across my uncle, J Arthur Rank?" suggested the quiet assumption that fellow passengers would be made up exclusively from the ruling classes. And indeed a Warburg banker, a secretary of the British Medical Association, a South African sugar- cane farmer, retired academics, assorted widows and piano-teachers plus a couple of Anthony Blunt relatives proved a homogeneous lot. An idle on-deck conversation about the trials and tribulations of newspaper ownership with a particularly pleasant businessman from Bahrain, whose interests ran from aircraft handling to catering, construction, hotels, insurance, money exchange, trading and travel, left me on later reflection musing on the notion that perhaps the Independent might have entered his sights.

Can Martin Randall avoid a runaway success? "Oh, yes. Keep the brochure boring."

n Order your boring brochure from: 0181-742 3355