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Ah! Music ...

Thu Aug. 20th 2015

One of the joys of my job is when clients return with glowing reports of places or experiences that I have never booked before.

Two of my favourite clients (actually an aunt and uncle so no favouritism involved really) are currently raving about their “month of music” in Austria and Germany.

Their itinerary took them to a small Austrian alpine village, Schwarzenburg, for a Schubertiade where they went to two concerts a day for a week, three on Sunday; to Munich for an all-star open-air concert and an opera; and, to Weimar and Leipzig as part of a Johann Sebastian Bach Journey, where they blissed out at five exclusive concerts arranged by Martin Randall Travel 
Nicola Thomas

For any of you who would like to read, it follows:

by Trish Gribben

This time we travelled for the music; a month of music in Austria and Germany: a Schubertiade; an open-air star-studded concert in Munich; an opera; five exclusive concerts on a Johann Sebastian Bach Journey.

It’s hard to decide if the venues made the music, or the music made the venues. There is nothing like hearing Bach’s St Matthew Passion ribboning round the high arches of the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, where Bach lived and worked from 1723 until his death in 1750, to soar the music to an almost celestial level. Or being immersed in green valleys with rippling streams, the maddening modern world shut out by towering escarpments, before you step into the all-wood Angelika Kaufmann concert hall for an afternoon of Schubert’s songs, a score, say, out of the 600-plus that he wrote.

We began with a week at a Schubertiade in Schwarzenberg, a one-church village in a Vorarlberg valley of Austria.Two concerts a day, one at 4 p.m. and one at 8 p.m. for seven days, three on Sunday. Once upon a time, soon after 1828 when Schubert died a tragically young 32-year-old, Schubertiades were gatherings to continue a tradition started by the prolific composer himself. Five days before he died Schubert asked his friends to play a Beethoven string quartet and was so overcome with joy his friends were anxious for him. We too were overcome, but no-one needed to be anxious for us.

The Schubertiade now is held four times a year in Schwarzenberg and nearby Hohenems and it attracts audiences from around the world to hear leading performers in surroundings that eliminate all the grime and grit of big urban venues.

Meadow flowers and grasses swish right up to the wall of the recital hall in Schwarzenberg and, in autumn, therein lies a problem. September is the month when the cows are brought down from high alpine pastures and, of course, this being the traditional Walder Austria where the locals pride themselves on keeping to their old ways, the ding-dong of the cow bells do not harmonise with lieder or a string quartet. News of the quarrel between upset audiences and farmers angry that their cows are classified a nuisance has gone public. Judicious rescheduling keeps the Schwarzenberg Schubertiade to June and August; in nearby Hohenems it is held in May, July, September and October.

The Angelika Kauffman Hall is named after the village’s most famous daughter.Angelika was a painter who lived from 1741 to 1807 and one of the delights of listening in her eponymous hall was later tracking down her paintings in Weimar and Munich. We found a Good Samaritan who was not only female but definitely looked like a self portrait. How edgy was that in the 18th century?

Schubert lieder is the mainstay of the week’s programme and for us it ranged from a haunting Wintereisse sung by Christophe Pregardian with Malcolm Martineau to the somewhat esoteric approach to lesser-known songs from Ian Bostridge. We also heard the Hagen Quartet playing Mozart and the Artemis Quartet playing Dvorak as if their lives depended on it. Andras Schiff conducted his Capella Andrea Barc orchestra for two Schubert symphonies and for our last concert–oh joy! –Schiff played Bach’s Goldberg Variations with all the reverence one master accords another.

The Sonne Hotel in Mellau, a village 10 minutes from the concert venue, added to the pleasures of our listening week. It was totally geared to guests rushing off mid elegant five-course dinners to catch the bus to a concert. We would return aglow from the music to find our table reset, candle lit, dessert and digestif waiting. How better to enhance the magic of the music?

As we drove from Schwarzenberg towards Munich for an open air concert spectacular, weather forecasters were 95 per cent sure that thunderstorms were on the way. Imagine: Heart throb tenor Jonas Kaufmann, glittering soprano Anna Netrebko, Russian baritone Dimitri Hvorostovsky, mezzo-soprano Elena Zhidkova, and bass Ildar Abdrazakov all drenched and dripping, to say nothing of the thousands gathered in the Konigsplaz where once Hitler’s rallies were filmed by Leni Riefenstahl. We were lucky. The black clouds rolled by, our plastic ponchos remained unfurled and the setting sun coloured up the clouds like a celestial painting on a Medici Palace ceiling. Heaven. Not so lucky was Dimitri Hvorostovsky , the baritone of whom Vanity Fair says "He is sending aficionados the world over into a collective swoon." He had to cancel owing to serious health problems which have been diagnosed as a brain tumour.

The Munich Opera House is bedecked with panels laced around its classical Greek columns for its opera season. Oh that we could be so exhuberant and splash out with bigger bolder brighter banners when we have events to celebrate. An American soprano, Sondra Radvanovsky, took us even deeper into the sublime with a glorious performance in the title role of Norma, Bellini’s opera of 1831. Again, the surroundings of the tiered and chandeliered opera house, all cream and gold and rose pink velvet swept up the occasion.

The moves that Johann Sebastian Bach made on his long procession into musical history are tailor-made for journeys in his footsteps. There is an English company, Martin Randall Travel, that specialises in group tours with exclusive concerts in marvelous settings. Their performers are hand picked and the commentators are best in their fields.

To hear Stephen Isserlis play Bach Unaccompanied cello suites in the Alte Bourse of Leipzig is to be transported to another realm. Isserlis himself, his long grey curly hair making a halo, plays mostly with his eyes shut, his head held high as if he is receiving the music direct from Bach himself. A day that begins with Sir Nicholas Kenyon’s background talk on the music, flows into the Isserlis rendition, and ends with three hours of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, sung and played by the Gabrielli Consort in the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig certainly does wonders for the spirit (see photos above inside the Nikolaikirche)

When you move about with ears wide open somehow every sound becomes amplified. Those birds singing their hearts out before sun sets through the leaves of the Goethe Park in Weimar---are they chorusing an Allelujah or a Gloria? The clip clop, clippity clop of a pair of horses drawing a carriage on the cobblestones—could that be the rhythm that Bach heard before he wrote a bass line in a variation? The golden fields of wheat and barley viewed from train windows across central Germany (not an animal in sight for hours on end, wind vanes hanging idly like giant crochets against the hazy skies, fields full of scores of solar panels) take on the lyrical sweep of a pastoral symphony and even the cow bells echoing across high meadows under alpine rocks take on the timbre of one of the universal melodies of existence. It’s hard not to get carried away when such a magical transformation is taking place.

Trish Gribben was invited to attend five Bach concerts on a recent Martin Randall Johann Sebastian Bach Journey in Weimar and Leipzig.