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

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.