Paradise Lost and Regained in Austria’s Backwoods

What Glyndebourne is to London, Grafenegg is to Vienna: a music festival in a small farming village one hour outside Vienna, in lower Austria’s Weinviertel area, six years ago inititated by pianist Rudolf Buchbinder on the grounds of a 18th century palace, rebuilt in 19th century neo-gothic style. A beautiful park, a stupendous modern stage (“Wolkenturm”) built around an artificially built outside arena with the option to move the  concerts inside the riding school in case of bad weather.

This year’s opening brought a very touching rendition of “The Creation” oratorio by Joseph Haydn, which he fashioned along John Milton’s Paradise Lost epos, afterHaydn’s travel to England 1795 where he had been highly impressed by Handel’s oratoria. The libretto, both in English and in German is adapted from Milton’s text by the Austrian statesman and enlightenment writer Gottfried van Swieten – and clearly is in the enlightened tradition of 18th century freemason ideas where man (Adam and Eve) gain center stage. (Both Haydn and van Swieten were members of the same lodge). While the public loved Haydn’s quite revolutionary music, the Church did not and forbade its being performed in churches. The major conflict with catholic doctrine is in the depiction of Adam and Eve who are portrayed in the third part as a loving couple detecting the God-created world and love, but not as the sinners driven from paradise.

Haydn’s music starts with a stunning,  “Let there be light” jubilation – after a sombre depiction of the chaos before creation. This really rips you from your chair; there are beautiful arias and recitatives, and very popular sound paintings imitating the sounds of the animals which god creates (from the lion, to the tiger, the cattle, sheep and worms).

All this was performed by a superior cast of soloists – old acquaintances from London, like Ian Bostridge and Gerald Finley, and the fantastic substitute soprano Camilla Tilling, whose beautiful voice and soulful singing brought tears to my eyes. The Arnold Schoenberg choir does not need any introduction, they were marvellous. The Niederoesterreichische Tonkuenstler Orchester bravely tried to live up to the singers and did so quite credibly, under the not very inspired baton of Claus Peter Flor – who also had to substitute at the last minute.

It was a gorgeous, very warm evening, a slight breeze moved through the branches of the old trees in the park, the moon sickle shone through misty air, a few bats and a fair number of mosquitos joined the fun – a very memorable evening. Before the performance and during the brief intermission, the park is populated by strolling listeners, there are many outdoors restaurants and wine bars  – what more can a music lover want. This is probably as close to paradise as one can get in this world (caution: tongue-in-cheek!).

Grafenegg is not (yet) Glyndebourne, but a very remarkable venue, definitely  to be recommended to anybody interested in music and a very special atmosphere.


1 Comment

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One response to “Paradise Lost and Regained in Austria’s Backwoods

  1. Werner Kiene

    Thank you Kurt,
    What a romantic account of what must have been a great evening. Too bad, we could not be there.

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