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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 May, 2005, 14:17 GMT 15:17 UK
Schubert parties in the Alps
By David Willey
BBC News in Schwarzenberg, Austria

The mountain setting for Austria's Schubertiade
The Alps provide the backdrop for Austria's Schubertiade
In an Austrian village amid majestic Alpine scenery where distant cowbells are usually the only sound, the curtain has gone up on one of the world's most unusual classical music festivals.

Five minutes before the start of each concert, two horn players stand outside the concert hall, built in the mountain chalet style, and play a short duet.

This is the signal for those who have been strolling through the green meadows around the beamed concert hall - constructed entirely of wood from local forests - to take their seats.

The duet was composed by Viennese maestro Franz Schubert - as is most of the music and particularly the songs, or lieder, played at the Schubertiade festival.

Music lovers from more than 30 countries gather here in the village of Schwarzenberg each year between May and September for four cycles of concerts at the modern, acoustically perfect concert hall.

Schubert died aged just 31 in 1828, leaving a huge body of songs and other musical compositions - most of which were only published after his death.

Schubert horn players
Music lovers gather in the village of Schwarzenberg
During the last few years of his life, he organised impromptu private performances with friends that became known as Schubertiade, or Schubert parties.

Now in its 30th year, the modern Schubertiade allows some of Europe's greatest singers, soloists and chamber groups to perform Schubert's works in almost ideal conditions.

In the interval, the audience can take their coffee or sip a glass of wine outside and enjoy the scenery. It is a stunning contrast to any urban music centre.

English tenor Ian Bostridge opened this year's festival with a group of friends from London, including composer Thomas Ades and the Belcea quartet, who are frequent performers at London's Wigmore Hall.

The mainly German-speaking audience gave an enthusiastic reception to their performances of Schubert and some English 20th Century music.

Schwarzenberg concert hall
The concert hall is built entirely of wood from local forests
They included works by Benjamin Britten and a haunting setting of Ralph Vaughan Williams' On Wenlock Edge - one of the great works of European song repertory.

Bostridge told me this series of concerts was combining "the best of old friends and the challenge of new acquaintances".

The Schubertiade festival is the brainchild of Gerd Nachbauer, an Austrian Schubert lover, who began it in nearby Hohenems in 1976.

The first season consisted of only nine concerts and attracted fewer than 3,000 people.

Main attractions

Last year, there were 99 concerts and more than 50,000 people travelled to this remote mountain area for the festival.

Mr Nachbauer told me that from October 2005, he is planning a series of winter concerts in Hohenems as well.

Since 1991, the Schubertiade has financed itself entirely from ticket sales.

One of this summer's main attractions will be a series of masterclasses given by one of the most famous and influential lieder artists of the 20th Century, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who turns 80 this month.

Majestic setting

Dieskau has recorded almost the entire repertory of German lieder. The pianist Alfred Brendel will also be giving performances.

For me, the chance to enjoy Schubert's incomparable music in the setting that inspired the composer on his walks in the Austrian countryside has been an experience I shall not easily forget.

One morning, I watched mountain trout swimming in a nearby torrent.

And the same evening, I listened to Schubert's song Die Forelle - describing that very scene.

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