SCHUBERTIADE 2015

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30 August 2015

The big excitement in the Bregenzerwald this year was the bus stops. As in "have you seen the bus stops yet?'" Or "just wait until you've seen the bus stops." Not phrases I had ever heard before.

The reason for coming to this part of Austria is to listen to music and stride out across the extraordinarily beautiful valleys, woods and mountains. Admiring bus stops was not on the list.

But this little corner of Austria is also intensely proud of its craftsmanship and design - one traditional, the other modernist. So when they tell you to see the bus stops you know these will not be any old bus stops.

And they aren't. 

It was (they explained) the Mayor of Krumbach's (pop 2,300) idea to commission seven international architects to build a bus stop each. There would be no fee - just a week's holiday in the region. There were few rules beyond using local materials and having a window so that waiting passengers could see an approaching bus. 

I was intrigued. And set aside a couple of hours to explore them. It was two hours well spent. We started with a camera obscura is by China's Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu - a fan of wood and glass framing a distant view of woods and fields. And then Russia's Alexander Brodsky cube, with glass on each side and a bright blue bench and table in the middle. The Chilean architect Smiljan Radic placed three hand-made wood chairs inside a steel and glass structure, topped off with a bird house. The bird house looked like a surveillance camera. Or would do in London. They don't have many round these parts.

The Spanish architects Anton Garcia-Abril and Debora Mesa used plans of rough sawn wood, of the sort you see in timber yards all round the local valleys.  Just that. The planks were cut in parts to open a window onto the mountains - and, of course, the road. But otherwise it was the simplest of the structures. A grey steel structure - half tent, half igloo - was the offering of Belgium's De Vylder Vinck Taillieu. Perhaps the most ambitious were Rintala Eggertsson from Norway, who incorporated a spectator stand for the adjacent tennis court in their shingle-clad timber shelter. Finally, the  least functional and most eccentric - Bränden bus stop by the Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, who recently designed the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion. This offered no shelter and took the form of white bamboo-like shards of steel  encasing a wooden staircase. You can see them all here.

Clever Mayor of Kumbach - getting the grandest architects in the world to celebrate the humblest public utility.  Such a project in Britain would be difficult to imagine -  because we have lost a sense of the value publicly-owned spaces and because they would soon be vandalised. London bus shelters tend now to be built out of indestructible steel and perspex with narrow sloping plastic ridges on which you can perch but not get comfortable. They are not things of beauty.  But in Bregenzerwald there is a strong feeling of community and civic pride, of embracing the new while holding onto the old. 

Tour completed, we moved onto the beautiful werkraum (architect, Peter Zumthor) built to showcase the work of local craftsmen and designers, where there was a temporary "hotel" constructed, like the Spanish bus shelter, simply out of local planks of wood. I've stayed in worse hotels made of straightforward bricks and mortar.

And so to the music. The undoubted highlight this year was Andras Schiff, who has been coming to the Schubertiade for 30 or so years, with brief break when he could not bring himself to travel to an Austria whose politics included the late and unsavoury Jorg Haider. 

Schiff was performing two all-Beethoven recitals with his old friend, the cellist Miklos Perenyi.  Schiff could play in any concert hall in the world - days earlier he'd packed out the Royal Albert Hall, playing the Goldberg Variations to an audience of 5,000. But he chooses to return repeatedly to Schwarzenberg to play in what's essentially a village hall in front of a few hundred. The performances were not showy, quite the opposite. We witnessed the intimacy of old friends and musical partners creating something almost private. 

The Romanian-German pianist Herbert Schuch, with an all-Schubert programme, played between the two Schiff-Perenyi concerts. He has much power and strength, but  struggles sometimes to find the charm and delicacy of Schubert.  On the same day Julia Kleiter, Christoph Pregardian and Julia Drake explored 20 or more of the lesser known Schubert song repertoire – a mix of small jewels and some justly forgotten early works. It is a long time since the Schubertiade was devoted only to the one composer, but they still try to give an airing to most of the works over time. 

On the Thursday night it was the turn of  the Polish-born tenor, Piotr Beczala, singing Die Schone Mullerin. They may have booed him recently at La Scala: here they brought him back for numerous bows at the end of the cycle, in which he was at risk of being overshadowed by the exquisite playing of the pianist Helmut German.  Those who don’t mind big operatic voices being deployed on lieder will have found much to admire. Others may have flinched a bit as he unleashed a voice – thin in its upper register – that would have shaken the chandeliers at the Met. I'm on the side of those who feel that lieder is best left to lieder specialists,  but the local audience couldn't have been more enthusiastic. 

Not so "local" either. Since BBC Radio 3 carried a week of broadcasts from Schwarzenberg last year the numbers of British voices in the audience has swelled. 

As you enter the Schwarzenberg hall for the evening concert the sun is dipping below the distant mountains. The men are in the fields turning the last of the hay. A lone cat prowls the grass looking for a twilight mouse. The spirit is calmed before a note is played.

After the concerts you head back on the buses to the network of family-owned hotels in the valleys around Schwarzenberg.  Most of the Brits were staying at the excellent Krone hotel in Hittisau, a little village about 20 minutes from the music.  We stayed at the wonderful Schiff hotel, which has been in the Metzler family since the mid-nineteenth century but which - like the Krumbach bus stops - has managed to incorporate modernist design (and even food) within a framework of long and robust local tradition. Antonie Metzler oversees the hotel with warmth, consideration and a beady eye for design and detail. 

And then there are  the pre-concert hikes.  Walk out of the front door of the Schiff and within minutes you're climbing up through the woods into Alpine pastures of cows, cowbells and goats. We did one hike across to Sibratsgfäll, about three hours away. Another day we hired local guide Helga Radler to bring us down from the mountain above Bezau, taking in a diversion to see a farmer and cheesemaker halfway down.  

The sun was out. The men were cutting the last of the hay. The valleys and mountains were laid out beneath us, silent apart from distant cowbells. On most holidays that would be enough. But with the Schubertiade that's just the warm up: there's still Andrs Schiff to come.

 

Part of our travel costs were paid for by Bregenzerwald Tourismus. A full review of the concert in the Guardian is here