Schubertiade: The hills are alive in Schwarzenberg

The annual Schubertiade festival is held annual to celebrate the music of Franz Schubert. This year there was plenty to enjoy, but also cause to be concerned about the future.

Schubertiade
Schwarzenberg, Austria
 
When Franz Schubert’s friends met at his Vienna apartment to play and sing his music, they called the evening a “Schubertiade” and that was the name that the baritone Hermann Prey gave to the festival he helped found in 1976 in Hohenems, the little town as far west as it’s possible to go from Vienna and still be in the Republic of Austria before you cross the Rhine into Switzerland. For some years it remained there, with recitals in the Rittersaal or Knights’ Hall of the Hohenems palace, and a marvellous room it was for musical performance: I have an indelible memoryof that lovely soprano Lucia Popp singing the Frauenliebe und-leben there 30 years ago.

After some intrigue, which I never got to the bottom of, the festival was evicted from the palace and found a new home, or homes: it’s now divided between one modern hall in Hohenems and another in Schwarzenberg, high in the hills ten miles away. Those of us who feel jaded from too much opera and crave chamber music – piano, quartets, above all song – as an antidote are by no means starved at home, what with the Wigmore Hall in London and St George’s Bristol, not to mention the Aldeburgh Festival in June and the Bath Mozart week in November. But none can match the beauty of the Schubertiade’s setting, and I came back to Schwarzenberg in June after several years’ absence in a mood to enjoy myself, though also to see how it, and the current state of art song, were getting on.

To call this long weekend a mixed bag would be one way of putting it: the Schubertiade offered the good, the bad and the ugly, the last in the sense of dubious choice of performers. In economically challenged times there’s a tendency for managements to look for artists either near the end of their careers or at the beginning, those who go by the periphrastic designation “Rising Stars” or “New Generation”. There was something of both on offer in Schwarzenberg. Best of the new was the Minetti Quartet, young Austrians (two of them from Ohlsfdorf, and a prize to any student of contemporary literature who can work out why that gives the quartet its name).

The festival repertory is far from confined to its namesake. Along with inconsequential early Schubert, they played Mozart: the “Hunt” Quartet and the Clarinet Quintet with Martin Fröst, and played them beautifully. If one had to award marks, the Minetti pipped the Apollon Musagete Quartet, who gave the Death and the Maiden quartet, by a number of points.

And the Minetti could also have given lessons in restraint to Christian Zacharias, now a veteran pianist (and sometimes conductor). He played snippets from Brahms, Mozart and Haydn before the wonderful Schubert Six moments musicaux. At his best very good, he needs to learn from contemporaries such as András Schiff and Imogen Cooper that, whatever else Schubert playing may be, it should never be mannered.

But the point of a Schubertiade must be songs. Let’s get over the bad news. Andreas Schmidt has been a fine baritone in his time and at 62 is ten years younger than Placido Domingo, who is still very much at it. When Schmidt began the first bars of Winterreise, it seemed that the bloom of his voice had gone, but it soon became clear that he had lost more than the bloom. Bearing in mind Philip Larkin’s lines about when it “becomes still more difficult to find/Words at once true and kind,/Or not untrue and not unkind,” the less said about this recital, the better.

Of the three other song recitals I heard, Christoph Prégardien’s long evening of ballads had the merit of originality: how often does one get the opportunity to hear Schubert’s “Der Zwerg” and “Die Bürgschaft”, let alone pieces by Wilhelm Killmayer, Franz Lachner or Carl Loewe? It would be idle to fault the singer for histrionics, since few of these count as great music and there’s anyway a flavour of Victorian ham about their texts, not to say the settings.

We also heard a work by Michael Gees, Prégardien’s accompanist, but the problem wasn’t so much his composing as his playing. Gees is someone else who needs to take advice, in his case from the late Gerald Moore, the famous accompanist, who called his memoirs Am I Too Loud? After Gees had pounded and battered the poor Steinway into submission, one was relieved that it seemed none the worse for wear when next played.

Two other accompanists showed how it should be done. The tenor Werner Güra gave an evening of Schubert songs, all of them familiar, none of them ever staled by repetition. He displayed more of the right stuff, albeit with his own superfluous dramatics, and he was well matched by Christoph Berner at the keyboard. But that was surpassed a few hours earlier. Carolina Ullrich is a most appealing young Chilean soprano, who gave another score of Schubert songs, some of them less-well known work from his teens, though well worth hearing and prettily sung. She was if anything outshone by Marcelo Amaral, her splendid Brazilian accompanist (and yes, it does seem unlikely that South America should be a hotbed of Austro-German art song, though why not?), whose playing was of the first excellence.

If there was much to enjoy in Schwarzenberg, and some hope for the future, there was also cause for concern. Maybe it becomes wearisome to talk about the wisdom of the ancients but younger singers really should listen to how it was once done, let’s say by Gerhard Hüsch or Hans Hotter: each song given with force and delicacy combined, the words sung with close attention to their meaning but without each syllable pounced on and tormented, an absolute emphasis on legato musical line. And don’t worry about the drama: Schubert did that for you.

The next part of Schubertiade runs from 27 August to 8 September in Schwarzenberg

The man's a Schu in: A recital at the Angelika Kauffman Hall.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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Politicians and fashion? Why their approach can be telling

My week, from spying on the spies to Theresa May’s fashion charm offensive – and how Sadiq stole hearts.

About nine months ago I was asked if I wanted to spend a morning with Zac Goldsmith, as he appeared to be wakening from the slumber that had obviously taken hold of him when he decided to run for mayor of London. However, after about three minutes in his company (maybe less, actually) I realised that not even his campaign team – let alone voters in the Borough of Southwark – thought he had a hope in hell of winning.

There was only ever going to be one winner, and the enthusiasm with which Sadiq Khan has been greeted by London has been heartwarming. He won the politician award at GQ’s Men of the Year Awards a few weeks ago, and I’d never heard such a roar as he leapt up on stage to collect it. Well, I’ve heard such roars for the likes of Michael Caine, Elton John and Amy Schumer, but rarely for a politician. In fact, the last time there was such fulsome applause for a politician at the GQ awards was when we gave one to a pre-Sextator David Blunkett. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised: the last time Noel Gallagher graced us with his presence, he asked: “Is this what a Conservative party conference looks like?”

 

On the dole

The recent past is being hauled over so repeatedly that soon there are going to be ­retrospectives of events that happened only last week. Or next week. On paper, the new exhibition at the V&A in London, entitled “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970”, seemed slightly behind the curve, but the reality is very different – as it’s probably the best exhibition you’ll see in London this year.

This is all down to the curation, which was handled by Geoffrey Marsh and Victoria Broackes, the wizards behind “David Bowie Is”, the most successful show in the V&A’s history. It’s a terrific exhibition, although being reminded of the cultural and political insurrection of the Sixties also reminds you of the period’s seemingly innate optimism as a new London was mushrooming into life. Winston Churchill was dead, abortion was about to be made legal and the rise in happiness seemed exponential. Britain was experiencing almost full employment (though the government wobbled slightly in the spring of 1966 when it was announced that the jobless total had gone up to half a million). It never occurred to anyone that there might not be a job
waiting for them when they left school or their red-brick university.

 

Priced out

There certainly won’t be a house waiting for them, not if they intend to live in London. The marketing bods behind the new development at Battersea Power Station came in to make a presentation at Vogue House a few weeks ago, showing us lots of slides and videos about their fabulous ­development. There’s a Frank Gehry this and a Frank Gehry that, a swimming pool, a private members’ club and lots of artisanal independent retailers selling organic rhubarb and fancy beer, blah blah blah.

Their roll-call of “good things” included the ominous words “affordable housing”, but this appears to be anything but. After the presentation, I promptly stuck my hand up and asked them what they actually meant by affordable housing. The answer I got wasn’t satisfactory, so I asked again: “What does your entry-level accommodation cost?” And the very charming man with the lapel-mike coughed apologetically and almost whispered, “£350,000.” At which point I made my excuses and left.

The idea that my daughters can one day get on the property ladder in London is pure fantasy, and they certainly won’t be living in Battersea, or indeed anywhere near it.

 

Back in fashion

Last Thursday, Theresa May hosted her first reception at Downing Street for the British fashion industry, an event that usually takes place twice a year, and which is attended by fashion designers, industry figures, newspaper and magazine editors and the like. ­Samantha Cameron was always a significant supporter of the sector (which contributes more to the country’s GDP than the car industry), as was Sarah Brown before her, and it is instructive that May has decided to follow in their footsteps.

It’s also telling that Mrs Cameron was not only invited to the event at No 10 but turned up, which says a lot about both women. Theresa May is a fundamentally shy person, yet she not only made a pitch-perfect speech in front of a Brexit-sensitive (and quite possibly suspicious) crowd, but chose to embrace the opportunity to espouse the growing importance of an industry that was so closely associated with the wife of her predecessor. There is such a lot of noise at the moment surrounding the PM’s apparent lack of interest in remaining on good terms with David Cameron, so one wonders what, if anything, is going on here. Taken at face value, May’s move at the reception was extremely classy.

 

The spying game

The following day I found myself in Cheltenham for a five-hour briefing on counterterrorism, cyber-defence, drug smuggling and child kidnapping at GCHQ.

I had expected the place to be like the Foreign Office, but it’s actually more like Google, Apple or Nike, and feels as though it could easily be a campus on America’s “Left Coast”.

There is an incredible sense of purpose at GCHQ, a feeling that they are all working for the common good, and frankly I found it infectious. While the denizens of Silicon Valley might be very adept at pushing the frontiers of consumerism, designing training shoes, telephones and algorithms, it felt far more appropriate to be spending time with men and women obsessed with making the world safer.

Dylan Jones is the editor-in-chief of GQ and a trustee of the Hay Festival

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times