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Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 1 ) • An Introduction

Tucked away in the Bregenz Forest between Lake Constance and the "Flysch Alps", betwixt valley, mountains, and hills so green cows salivate with eager anticipation, lies Schwarzenberg. You get there by car if you're smart, cab if you're rich, or yellow post-bus if you're neither.

You will likely first arrive in Bregenz, a shabby town directly on Lake Constance that is fascinating for its preservation of 60s, 70s, and 80s flair… the flair of a town that was once convinced of its own great charm but didn't do anything to build on or preserve it. From there you might take one of those yellow buses—none of which will go directly to where you need to go, and none of the connections of which are equally efficient. The internet, the bus plan, and the driver's directions all seem to differ… which in detail may mean an extra half hour of enjoying the vistas of the stunning Bregenz Forest countryside between steep cliffs, narrow roads, tall bridges, alpine rivers, farms that lord over hilltops, and content cows, smugly aware of their privileged position.

>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 2 ) • Prégardien Père et Fils
>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 3 ) • Belcea Quartet & Thomas Quasthoff
>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 4 ) • Belcea Quartet & Till Fellner
>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 5 ) • Diana Damrau & Xavier de Maistre
>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 6 ) • Lemony Bostridge, Lascivious Röschmann
>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 7 ) • Hagen Quartett I

If——just hypothetically, switching hastily from one bus to another and having nervously peered out of the windows to guess just which the right exit among the slew of similarly named stops might be: Egg downhill, Egg uphill, Egg Centre, Egg Post Office, Egg-Grossdorf, Unteregg, Oberegg, Egg Highway or so it feels——you forget your suitcase on the bus, you can count on an extra hour or two of bus-riding and country-side viewing. It's a small place, the Bregenz Forest with its 22 small villages, and all the bus drivers know each other and nothing gets lost or stolen, so you will find that suitcase again, have made friends with two bus drivers in the process, and the cows will start waving coyly at you when you drive by them the third time in short succession. Again: Hypothetically!

Schwarzenberg Vista

Schubert and Rarely Beyond

The reason to do all this is the Schubertiade Festival that has put Schwarzenberg firmly on the culture-map ever since the Festival settled on the tiny pre-alpine village as its primary home in 2001. The Schubertiade, in various locations in tiny Voralberg has been operating since 1976 and, not unique but exceedingly rare among such festivals in subsidy-sodden Europe, has been entirely privately financed since 1991. As the name might indicate, it is wholly dedicated to Schubert. Since it’s reduction in scope that came with eschewing the public hand (“politicians are not interested in culture; politicians are only interested in creating dependencies” is how director and founder Gerd Nachbauer sums up his experiences), it focuses especially on chamber music and Lied. Schubert up and down in extraordinary quality and with the finest artists who all enjoy the peace and quiet of the place themselves, the hills, the mountains, and—this is conjecture—the cows. As an artist, it's just the sort of paid holiday to take either right before the height of festival season, or right after, seeing how the three-partite program is scheduled to accommodate the modern artist’s touring realities.

The Schubertiade knows its strength, which lies in focus, and it sticks to its Schubert-guns. When it gets adventurous it might offer a cycle of Beethoven String Quartets (especially if that's what the Hagen Quartet is doing everywhere they go that year, Salzburg included) or a Dvořák Piano Quintet. Don't expect an evening dedicated to Janaček or Berthold Goldschmidt, though, even if Nachbauer’s own tastes are considerably more catholic. This year, actually, Ian Bostridge did give a recital of Ives and Britten (preceded, though, by a preemptively rueful Winterreise) and promptly the local press titled with an air of indignation: “Audience was challenged: Ian Bostridge confronted Winterreise with Britten”.

Local cow greets inquisitive tourist in Lederhosen

Location & Extraneous Observations

The Vorarlberg province, where the Bregenz Forest lies, is not quite Swiss, but almost. Certainly not German, though a language is spoken that occasionally reminds of something like German. And technically Austrian, yet even by heterogeneous Austrian standards, this smallest of its provinces, lying in a cut-off corner in the far West, is more different than any of the rest.

There is some great fooding going on in this region, borne mostly out of the domestic sense of quality for ingredients and how to bring the best out in them. It is usually best when simple… but you can take the road too far down and end up at simplistic which is rather rougher than most Schubert-loving Western urbanites are used to. Still, it's an experience that's a healthy corrective to our souls warped by isolation within metropolises to go to such a local's restaurant of choice where you get a scent (and salad dressing) that hasn't much changed in forty or more years. Small nods towards the new millennium are the addition of a small portion of the restaurant half-heartedly cordoned off as the non-smoking section which traps the odd (and unlikely) tourist or a family with small children on their rare night out. A succinct vegetarian section has crept onto the menus, which for some reason feels as though it's sneering at you a little. A final hint of modernity is found in the inclusion of Vodka + Red Bull on the menu which any self respecting soul should find appalling, but a certain kind of local laps up.

The kid's menu, speaking of the little ones, is still what it was when I was in similarish places as a kid: It features atop a short list the Mickey-Mouse Plate which some unwritten law stipulates to be a small "Wiener" Schnitzel (except made from pork, even if that isn't specially noted), fries, and ketchup. Why—admittedly—mess with child-satisfying perfection. One part of the menu, this also in line with tradition, is still dedicated to "Toast". Toast with ham and cheese, Toast with ham and tomatoes, Toast with Ham, cheese, and tomatoes, and then the toast of them all, a 70s icon par excellence (perhaps akin to what the beloved corn dog is in some American regions): "Toast Hawaii". Toast on which you find a slice of ham, a ring of canned pineapple, covered with a melted slice of Emmental (or similar such) cheese. My consumption instructions would be: douse liberally in ketchup, close your eyes, and think about England. What's missing to complete the picture—although this is not in the strictest sense a culinary item—are the coiled glue-strips hanging from the ceiling to catch flies. But you can't have everything.

In such a place you will find salt-of-the-earth men, straight from work or maybe from dinner at home. The male to female ratio (non-scientific average taken on this trip) is 16 to 1, and you can tell the local carpenter by the missing digits (or parts thereof) from his hand. You will feel compelled to order a large beer, so as not to look ridiculously out of place, and you will find that three bred dumplings with bacon in melted butter are, if not in an exact sense delicious, so at least a sufficient meal. And you spent it in company that reminds you that life is still simpler in many places, without being worse… and where people need not and aren't told what to do in order to get on with their lives. It’s a fine example of the Austrian—and especially Voralberger—trait of stubbornness, addled or reinforced, depending on temperament, by piety and local-spiritedness. But you also have to think of the campaign posters of the so-called “Liberal” Party (FPÖ), with its solidly xenophobic roots: “Love Your Neighbor”, it proclaims in well-intentioned large letters. Almost as large comes the FPÖ’s qualification beneath it: “For us, that’s means our fellow AUSTRIANS”, thus helpfully redefining and correcting the surely far too inclusive view Jesus and/or Leviticus took on the matter.

It had just rained, as I step out of the pub, and the air smells twice as delicious stepping out of the somewhat smoky interior into the pleasantly temperate night with lots of Lieder-recitals to look forward to. 

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