© Christine Headley, 1997

SEVEN DAYS IN DANUBIA

The Fourth Austro-Hungarian Music Festival



Christine Headley spent a year in eager anticipation of her holiday, and was delighted to find her expectations exceeded

Typical was the early-evening concert in the Brahms-Saal of the Musikverein in Vienna. The Vienna Piano Trio, young musicians all, played works by Brahms and Schubert with extraordinary commitment and panache among the caryatids for an audience of 140. In the interval we collected drinks in the bar and peeped into the Grosser Saal to admire the even larger number of caryatids in that hall, known around the world for the annual New Year's Day Strauss concerts.

It was Wednesday 20 August 1997, and we had been together since the previous Saturday. This was the seventh of ten concerts in a week, at locations between Passau in Germany and Esterháza in Hungary. The bulk of the travelling was done during the night, on board a cruise-ship that regularly plies up and down the Danube and has for the past four years accommodated the Austro-Hungarian Music Festival for a week in August.

Travelling with us were Andrew Wheatcroft (as historical expert), Roderick Swanstone (as musical guru), Martin Randall and two of his staff, and a freelance tour guide. Andrew gave a talk every day; Roderick gave an overall introductory lecture, and just before each concert told us about the works we were due to hear. The staff seemed to combine friendliness with vigilance, and overcame all passing problems without fuss.

Andrew's talks greatly increased our understanding of the history of the region (sometimes known as Danubia) which was the home of the Austro- Hungarian empire.

The common interest was of course 'Austro-Hungarian' music. The concerts particularly featured Schubert, as it is the bicentenary of his birth, and Brahms, as it is the centenary of his death, but works by other composers from Mozart to Ligeti were also played.

The first morning we moored at Melk. Many walked through the woods to the town. At the abbey, we were divided into groups and allocated to a tour guide. Melk is a good place to start, as the abbey was originally founded by a very early ruler of Austria. Before Mass there was time for a drink in the cloisters - at all the concerts, MRT arranged drinks at a suitable time and place, so there was no need for 140 people to waste time rattling purses.

The music we had come to hear formed part of the Sunday mass. Melk church-goers had come along as usual and were treated to a Mass by Bach's contemporary Fux performed by the Capella Savaria and Capella Cantorum Savariense, conducted by Pál Németh, plus appropriate sonata movements by Mozart and Muffat. The musicians were in the organ loft and invisible.

By a lucky chance, Martin Randall had discovered that one of our number was a Roman Catholic deacon. He mentioned this to the Melk authorities, and the Abbot, who was taking the service in recognition of our contribution, invited the deacon to participate and read one of the lessons in English. Not being responsible to a bishop, the Abbot was also able to invite anyone who wished to take communion - an unusual step for a Catholic.

At lunchtime we sailed on to Dürnstein, where we were able to look around the village - unbeknown to us, celebrating its 650th anniversary that very day - before setting off in coaches for the day's second concert.

Also travelling with us were the tenor Ian Partridge and his sister Jennifer, his accompanist. Many of us had heard them before, but their performance of Schubert's song-cycle Die Schöne Müllerin (The Fair Maid of the Mill) was a revelation.

Surrounded on two sides by the Schloß grounds, with windows letting in wafts of early-evening air, we were immersed in the story of the mill-apprentice's passion for the miller's daughter, his joy when she smiles on him and his wretchedness when she falls in love with a hunter.

Next morning saw us in Bratislava, now in Slovakia though once in Hungary. We had to pass through immigration to get to and fro from the ship, but after the first time this was straightforward. MRT had foreseen problems with so many of us arriving at once in need of Slovak currency, which is not available outside the country, so they arranged for each of us to receive about £ 2 in Slovak Crowns - 'enough for a drink and a couple of postcards'.

After a guided tour around Bratislava and lunch, coaches took us to the Slovak Radio Hall for a symphony concert of works by Brahms, Dvorak and Schubert. The building was in contrast to the Primate's Palace, the venue of the evening concert, once the headquarters of the Archbishop of Hungary while his normal seat at Esztergom formed part of the Turkish empire. The Trávnícek Quartet played in the Mirror Hall, Bratislava's answer to Versailles. We heard works by Suk, Beethoven and Smetana.

We arrived next morning at Komarom - the furthest point of the Danube that we reached. This was the only day MRT head-counted - it involved three coach trips and they were clearly anxious not to leave someone inaccessibly behind.

In Györ we looked around the town and then went on to Fertöd, where the Palace of Esterháza lies. We visited the Palace before lunch. At the mealtime we went out to the erstwhile location of the Opera House (now an area of grass and trees) for a picnic, the main feature of which was a goulasch soup prepared and served by Adam Fischer, the conductor of the afternoon's concert!

The Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra played two Haydn symphonies and a piano concerto with Adam Fischer as soloist. The concert was held in the Music Room of the Palace, with a beautiful view of the park behind and the facade of the house in front. Martin Randall had written architectural notes about the house so that we could appreciate it more fully.

We woke up on Wednesday morning in Vienna. By eight thirty we were climbing into coaches again for an hour's ride to Schloß Schloßhof, one of Prinz Eugen of Savoy's country retreats. Prinz Eugen saved Vienna from invasion by the Turks and was suitably rewarded. He never married and his niece sold all his property as soon as she inherited it. It was later sold to the Empress and after much deterioration is now being restored. We also saw storks nesting on a nearby chimney.

The concert was given by the quintett.wien, a wind quintet made up of young players from several Viennese orchestras. They treated us to works by Mozart, Ligeti and Schubert, and the lesser-known Danzi and Farkas. One of the encores was also the only Strauss work we heard in the whole week - Johann the Younger's Egyptian March, the one where the participants sing in the middle; the quintett.wien managed this as well.

In the late afternoon it was a short ride into town and the Brahms-Saal concert, which I described earlier.

On Thursday morning we split into two groups. I opted to go to the morning 'Schubertiade' and have the afternoon free. Coaches took us to the Ninth District, where we visited Schubert's birthplace and the church where he was christened, before making our way to the building which is now the French Institute, but in the nineteenth century was the home of a very posh family.

Franz Schubert was the son of a schoolmaster and received the best musical education Vienna had to offer - he sang in the Imperial forerunner of the Vienna Boys Choir as a child. He was composing mature works in his teens. Schubert (who died aged only 31 after a long and slow illness) did not have the aristocratic patrons that many of the contemporaries did, but he was one of a large group of friends interested in all forms of the arts, and his friends recognised his talent, some wrote poems for him, and they regularly held parties to hear his latest works. These were called Schubertiades.

For many of us I am sure that the Schubertiade was the high spot of the week. It opened with five songs, sung by Ian Partridge. The last was The Trout, which led into a performance of the Piano Quintet (which uses the Trout melody for a Theme and Variations) by members of the Arcus Ensemble Wien. After the interval, there was a sonata Schubert had originally written for an instrument he called the Arpeggione, which seems to have been a cross between a guitar and a cello - it was a shortlived phase and no examples remain. Georg Hamman (of the Arcus Ensemble) played it on the viola. After three more songs, the Vienna Piano Trio played one of Schubert's very last works - the Piano Trio movement in E flat. After this the Festival's fixer at the Austro-Hungarian end read the text from Schubert's gravestone in German, which was followed by its English translation. This was inspired programme planning, and extremely moving.

On Friday morning we moored at the small town of Grein. The concert was held in the Municipal Theatre, dating from the eighteenth century. With 140 seats, we just fitted in. The stage was set for a play, possibly a drawing-room comedy, which made the string quartet's seats look rather incongruous, but that paled into insignificance as we listened to Bartok's second String Quartet and Schubert's Death and the Maiden Quartet. The Death and the Maiden theme stayed in my head for many days. The performance was by the New Budapest Quartet: unlike many of the ensembles we had heard, this group had a weight of experience to put into their performance, rather than youthful exuberance.

Many on board were experiencing the holiday of a lifetime. Most of the concerts would normally be the sort of occasion that stand out in memory for years to come. As a collective experience one might as well talk about perfection. Our hopes and expectations were high. It was a joy to find that they could be exceeded.

After lunch we departed for St Florian. Like Melk, St Florian is an abbey based on a donation in the far-distant past (indicated by the fact that they are both described as Stift), and examples of high-baroque architecture. We toured the public rooms, and eventually gathered in the orchard outside the Sala Terrena for a pre-concert drink. Inside the Sala Terrena we heard the Collegium Viennense play works by Pleyel and Schubert, and Mozart's Serenade in B flat minor, which he may have composed for his own wedding.

Coaches then took us to Linz, whence the boat had travelled in our absence, for the last leg of our journey back to Passau and home.

Having paid MRT there was precious little need to spend money. The only things not included on board were drinks and laundry. As Austrian shops don't open on Sundays, chances to spend Schillings were decidedly limited until we got to Vienna. Slovak currency was provided, Hungarian wasn't necessary and the boat took Deutschmarks and credit cards.

While a comforting number of participants were MRT regulars - some had even been on previous Festivals - many on board were experiencing the holiday of a lifetime. Most of the concerts would normally be the sort of occasion that stand out in memory for years to come. As a collective experience one might as well talk about perfection - any criticisms can be no more than quibbles. Our hopes and expectations were high. It was a joy to find that they could be exceeded.



Martin Randall Travel
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This page was most recently updated on 27 August 2005.