Listen to the sound of music in the Austrian Alps
For 30 summers the Alps have hosted a festival to honour Franz Schubert, the great Viennese composer. Now there's a winter extravaganza too. David Willey finds man and nature in harmony
Saturday 08 October 2005
Feel like travelling to a musical Shangri-la hidden in the Alps, a sort of high-altitude Glyndebourne? Want to hear Schubert while perched high on an Alpine plateau with the same acoustic perfection you would expect inside the Wigmore Hall, in London? How about a twilight stroll to the sound of distant cowbells, down a mountain path, through flowered meadows, during the concert interval, a glass of chilled white wine in your hand?
All this is yours at the Schubertiade, the biggest Schubert festival in the world, which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary - and this weekend begins its first winter season. The location is magical: high up in the Bregenzerwald, immediately east of Lake Constance, surrounded by breathtaking scenery. The area, shut in by mountains that rise to over 2,500m, has a population of only 30,000 people, scattered around 22 villages and hamlets. It is almost a breakaway state, too: the region has a history of proud independence within the former Austro- Hungarian Empire and was at one time recognised as a semi-autonomous "Farmers' Republic".
The rhythm of the perfect Schubertiade day combines a morning mountain hike, local gastronomy, and a perfectly balanced musical diet. After watching wild trout swimming in a torrent gushing down from a small lake not more than an hour's walk from our hotel, we were able to listen to Ian Bostridge giving us his version of Schubert's Die Forelle in the evening. The murmuring brooks you hear in the piano accompaniment for some of Schubert's songs are all around you - although, paradoxically, the composer himself, as far as we know, never went on a picnic party with his friends in this particular part of Austria. Still, the Schubertiade does manage to recapture some of that festive atmosphere which must have existed when the young Viennese musician played his own compositions for his friends. And it introduces you to the tiny mountain village of Schwarzenberg, a half-hour's drive from the point where the borders of Germany, Switzerland and Austria meet.
The journey lifts you from the tranquillity of the lake shore into the geological turmoil of the Alps. Bregenz itself - where Germany ends and Austria begins - has the feel of a border town rather left behind by the 21st century. The railway close to the waterside sees little action; the occasional train takes eight hours to reach to Vienna. You feel the relief of elevation once you start to climb above the humdrum, into a bucolic mountain landscape.
You will be following in plenty of footsteps: last summer 100 concerts attracted more than 50,000 music lovers from as far afield as Japan and New Zealand. About half the audience comes from Germany, a quarter are Austrian, and one in 10 is British. Some of the world's greatest German lieder artists and internationally acclaimed chamber groups celebrate Franz Schubert's musical legacy in his native country.
The main venue, the Angelika Kaufmann Hall, in Schwarzenberg, was originally built as a village community centre. It is named after the woman who became one of the most successful painters of the European 18th-century baroque. I was present in May for a delightful long weekend of music-making billed as "Ian Bostridge and his Friends" during which we heard not only some memorable recitals devoted to Schubert's songs and string quartets, but also pieces by Benjamin Britten, love songs from Elizabethan England composed by John Dowland, and a haunting setting of On Wenlock Edge by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Even though the landscape is a long way - in every sense - from the Shropshire hills, it seemed a natural fit.
Starting this weekend, the Schubertiade is extending its appeal by inaugurating a winter season. One weekend a month, performances will be given in a newly restored medieval hall in the village of Hohenems, where the festival had modest beginnings in 1975. This location is at a lower altitude, but the extension of the season raises the intriguing prospect of combining Schubert with skiing. Some of Austria's top resorts, including St Anton, are a short train ride away.
You may prefer, though, to wait for next summer; Schwarzenberg picks up the Schubert baton early in June. Buses shuttle visitors back and forth to the hotels for the concerts, normally held in the afternoons and evenings. If you cannot manage to gulp down your dinner in the interval between the afternoon and evening concerts, don't despair. The owners of our hotel had dreamed up a nice compromise: starters and main course before the concert, dessert when the bus brings you back later.
The festival management receives no government subsidies from Vienna and is entirely self-supporting. For this reason, ticket prices are not cheap. A seat costs about 60 euros (£40), but reductions are available for group bookings, and tickets can also be combined with accommodation in many of the small family-run hotels in local villages.
Plus there are some ingredients that money simply cannot buy: after each interval, a couple of horn players call you back to your seat with a brief but stirring Schubert duo.
The closest airport to the Schubertiade venues is Friedrichshafen, Germany, on the shore of Lake Constance. Ryanair (0906 270 5656; www.ryanair.com) flies there daily from London Stansted. From Friedrichshafen there are occasional trains across the border to Bregenz.
Online booking on: www.bregenzerwald.at
Hotel Gasthof Gams, in Bezau (00 43 5514 2220; www.hotel-gams.at)
Schubertiade (00 43 5576 72031; www.schubertiade.at).
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