Roman palazzo, Austrian monastery, Venetian church - hearing a piece of music in its intended venue is a revelation. Ian Irvine reports on cultural tours for the discerning ear

Three scenes from the past decade: I am sitting expectantly in Basilica of San Marco in Venice, surrounded by its gorgeous Byzantine gold. Although it is easily the most sumptuous of all Venice's churches, San Marco is not the city's cathedral, but simply the private chapel of the Doge. We are about to hear a Christmas Mass by Gabrielli and Cipriano di Rore performed by the Gabrielli Consort and Players, conducted by Paul McCreesh. Both composers were employed by the Doge in the 16th century and wrote their music specifically to be performed in San Marco. The effect of hearing the music in its intended setting is overwhelming: Gabrielli's canzonas, sonatas and motets for cornets, sackbutts, strings and voices blaze forth in rich contrast to the austerity of the plainchant of Di Rore's Ordinary of the Mass.

I am in the Marmorsaal (Marble Room) in the Austrian monastery of St Florian, a masterpiece of Baroque architecture and decoration. This vast, elaborate and dramatic space is part of the suite of rooms which were kept for the visits of the Habsburg emperor and his family. The ceiling is painted as if open to the clouds and we can observe the Emperor Charles V in triumph, using an abject Turk as his footstool. We are listening to Mozart's Gran Partita for 13 Wind Instruments performed by members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, a work of stately elegance at one with our surroundings.

I am in Rome, in the enormous marble salon of the Palazzo Colonna, where the Colonna family has lived for more than a thousand years and still does, in a residence on a similar scale to Somerset House in central London. The performers are again the Gabrielli Consort and Players under Paul McCreesh and this time they are re-creating the first performance of Handel's La Resurrezione, which took place in 1708 in a similar salon in a neighbouring palazzo since demolished. Opera was not encouraged in Rome: the papal authorities were unenthusiastic about women performing in public and the often frivolous nature of the material, but the Roman aristocracy found other ways of enjoying its pleasures. This little-known masterpiece was composed in Rome for performance at Easter 1708, commissioned by Marchese Ruspoli to impress the Pope with no expense spared. Spectacular oratorios became opera in all but name, and this work from the prodigiously talented young Handel, then 23, lacks nothing that would compare with his greatest operas.

All three of these highlights from my life as a cultural tourist were part of the remarkable series of music festivals run by Martin Randall. For 16 years Martin Randall Travel has gained a leading reputation in the world of cultural travel for its meticulous planning, first-rate lecturers and its access to art collections and houses which other firms cannot reach.

Its current brochure offers more than 120 trips, which cover most of the great European cities and further beyond, to Morocco, Libya, Iran, Syria, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. For the past 11 years, Martin Randall has extended his cultural range by organising his own private music festivals. The first was the Austro-Hungarian Music Festival, which offered a week-long introduction to the art, architecture and music of the Habsburg Empire and had the inspired idea of transporting and housing the 120 clients on a luxurious river cruiser.

The trip down the Danube took in the great Baroque monasteries of Melk, St Florian and Gottweig, as well as the cities of Passau, Vienna and Bratislava. The palaces, churches, country houses and theatres in which the daily concerts took place were of the same period and region of origin as the music, and in some places there were specific associations with the music. These are the authentic concert halls where music was heard long before specialised buildings were evolved for public performance. Today when music is overwhelmingly listened to in a recorded form and can be played anywhere, it was a revelation to hear it live on the scale originally intended.

This first music festival was instantly successful and has been repeated every year since. The high quality of the performers was one reason for the festival's success, but the lecturers too were outstanding. (This August they will be Professor Roderick Swanston of the Royal College of Music, who has led all 11 of these tours, and the Cambridge historian Professor Richard Evans.)

In the following years the firm extended its range of music festivals: Rome, Venice, Prague have all been featured. This October St Petersburg is being added to the list, offering eight concerts over six nights. They include: Musica Antiqua St Petersburg under the direction of Steven Fox performing Bortnyansky's opera Le Fils Rival at the Hermitage Theatre, which will be the first period-instrument performance of a Russian opera in modern times in one of the finest of the few 18th-century theatres to survive in Europe; a concert of Orthodox choral music in the St Peter and Paul Cathedral; and, possibly the most delightful, a concert of chamber music, two quartets by key figures in the development of the Russian national school, Mikhail Glinka and Aleksandr Alyabyev, performed by the Dominant Quartet in a small hall in what is now the Brodsky Museum.

This venue was the centre of musical life in St Petersburg in the early 19th century: from 1826 the Vielgorsky brothers arranged concerts here, in their home, which featured the latest Western music as well as providing a forum for burgeoning Russian composers. It seats fewer than 50, so the concert will be repeated until all 260 guests have heard it. It is for such rare opportunities as these to hear music in such suitable surroundings that make these music festivals unique and so attractive.

This year's Austro-Hungarian Music Festival will take place 14-21 August. Prices begin at £2,150, which includes return flights, accommodation on the river cruiser, all meals, admission to all concerts, lectures, transport and admissions. The Festival of Music in St Petersburg will run 10-16 October, with prices starting at £1,890.

Martin Randall Travel (020 8742 3355;


Travel For The Arts (020-8799 8350; offers a range of mainly performance-based group tours featuring music, opera and dance festivals.

JMB Travel Consultants (01905 830099; offers tailor-made trips for individuals to opera and music festivals worldwide.

Prospect (020-7486 5704; offers group and individual travel for arts and music lovers, taking in architecture, art, history, music and opera, mostly in Europe.

Page&Moy (0870-010 6212; offers guided group tours, taking in art, history, music, opera and wine.

Specialtours (020-7730 2297; offers guided group programmes in association with The National Art Collections Fund, taking in mostly archaeology, art and history.

Andante Travels (01722 713800; offers a range of guided group trips, taking in archaeology and ancient history.

Ian McCurrach