by Paul E. Robinson
River Cruise along the Main, the Rhine and the Danube
past August, Marita and I thoroughly enjoyed the “European Jewels” Uniworld River Cruise from
Amsterdam to Budapest. We were not expecting a concentration of musical events on this excursion; rather,
we thought it would give us a view of Europe from a new perspective (i.e., docking within walking distance of towns and cities) – and it
did, but to our delight, there was glorious music on this cruise as well, often in unexpected places.
Up until about 20
years ago, this particular river cruise would not even have been possible; there
simply was no water route connecting Holland, Germany, Austria and Hungary. The Romans had a dream to connect the Rhine and the Danube, to have a water route from the Black Sea to the North Sea (2,170 miles), a dream realized only in the 20th century.
The challenge was the
Main River - full of rapids and swamps - between the Rhine and the Danube. Charlemagne
tried unsuccessfully to make a canal in 793; what remains of his efforts is known as Charlemagne’s Ditch. King Ludwig tried again in 1837, and completed a canal with
no fewer than 101 locks, which opened in 1843. Parts of it still exist.
Unfortunately, it was opened at a time when the railways were getting
established and railways proved to be faster and more economical; hence, Ludwig's canal was
abandoned….until the 1970s.
The 106 mile long Main-Danube
Canal, on the current route of our Uniworld European
Jewels (Amsterdam to Budapest) river cruise, dreamt about and even
attempted by the Romans, was fully open only in 1992.
In modern times, the
first section - from Bamberg to Nuremberg (44 miles) - was finished in 1976
with 7 locks. Continuation was opposed by the Green Party and changes were made
to the design to make it less straight, more interesting and with more
recreational aspects. The whole Main-Danube canal cost US$4.2 billion to build.
Most of the locks are combined with hydro-electric power plants. The great
advantages of the canal are 1) cheaper transportation, especially of bulk
cargos, and 2) flood control. The maximum lock width is 39 ft (our ship was 37
ft). Water to operate the locks comes from reservoirs (60%) and from the canal
itself (40%). The Continental Divide is in the middle of the canal.
Nightwatch in Amsterdam
We began our cruise
in Amsterdam, and at the top of my agenda was a visit to the newly renovated
Rijksmuseum. It seems everybody else had the same idea; the place was packed. We
did manage to make our way to the pièce de resistance, Rembrandt’s Nightwatch (full and formal title: The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq) and we were suitably awed by the sight of this famous masterpiece.
What we hadn’t
realized until our visit to the museum, was that the subject matter of
Rembrandt’s Nightwatch (i.e., a group
portrait of a militia), had been rendered by no fewer than six other artists in
Amsterdam in Rembrandt's time (1642). The curators of the Rijksmuseum made us aware of
this fact by surrounding Nightwatch with the six other paintings depicting the
same subject – if not the same militia. What makes Nightwatch stand out from these others, we saw, was not the subject matter, but Rembrandt’s
distinctive artistry – his eye for detail and differentiation, the command of
light and shade (chiaroscuro)
In spite of being in
“awe” of this masterpiece, however, I must admit I was somewhat
disappointed to see Nightwatch “in
the flesh”, as it were. The painting seemed less dramatic than I had expected,
and less mysterious. Several years ago new LED lights were installed in the Nightwatch room at the Rijksmuseum to save energy and reduce the harm which might be done to the paintings by UV radiation. It may be that the new museum lighting is too “white” for the painting. More likely, it is the fact that the Nightwatch we see in books is the
painting as it looked before 1940. “Nightwatch”
is, after all, only a nickname and a misconceived one at that. Under the dark varnish
people thought this was a night scene, but “after layers of varnish and dirt were stripped away in the 1940s", it turns out that the painting has nothing to
do with night.
Taste of Brahms in Rüdesheim
We set off down the
Rhine with stops at Cologne and Rüdesheim. Rüdesheim is a charming old town,
well-known today for its Rüdesheimer Kaffee, a concoction laced with local
liquor and topped with whipped cream. The town is also famous for its vineyards
and for its monument to German unity high on a hill. We took a cable car up the
hill then walked back down through the vineyards. But while we were strolling
through the park at the top we noticed a sign which said “Brahms Weg” or
“Brahms Way.” It seems that Brahms had friends in Rüdesheim and when he visited
he loved to walk through the woods leading to the monument. The view is
spectacular and one can imagine Brahms enjoying nature and pondering Germany’s
role in the world as he walked.
Street Music in Würzburg
Würzburg is the
largest city in Franconia and dates its history back to 1000 BC when Celtic
tribes settled here. Our guides stressed that while Würzburg is in the state of
Bavaria, its residents do not like to be called Bavarians. They consider
themselves Franconians. In 1945, just before the end of the war, the city of
Würzburg was 87% destroyed by Allied bombing; over 4,000 people were killed.
The Würzburg Residenz is one
of the architectural glories of the Baroque in Austria. It was designed by the
architect Balthasar Neumann with ceiling frescoes by Tintoretto. Our guide
stressed how unique it was to have such a huge unsupported ceiling over the
entrance staircase, with an enormously detailed fresco above. It was all very
impressive in the Versailles manner with long ornate corridors and rooms, and
vast, elaborate gardens in the surrounding area.
Later, we went into
the wine cellar of the Residenz for some wine-tasting; all local, and somewhat
sweet white wines.
After the tour, during the hour or so we had to ourselves in Würzburg, we strolled around the downtown area, taking in the sights: a large cathedral (Dom), a castle high on the high bank at the other side of the river, and the
Alte Main Brücke, a narrow pedestrian bridge lined with statues of historic
figures and small wine bars, each with a few outside tables on the bridge – a
great “people" place, especially on this bright, warm (81F) day. This bridge, destroyed by Allied planes near the end of the war, has been fully rebuilt. While walking
through downtown we came across a street performance by a four-man vocal group from Minsk – very good, singing mostly Russian folk songs. They collected some
money from listeners on the street and hopefully sold some of their CDs.
Stint in Heidelberg
Heidelberg is best known for Heidelberger Schloss, high on a hill overlooking the city. Work on the castle
began in 1214 and continued for hundreds of years. Throughout its history,
this castle was frequently attacked and much of it destroyed. In the Nineteenth
Century it became more famous than ever as a ruin. Victor Hugo wrote eloquently
about it and so too did Mark Twain. Turner painted the ruined Powder Tower into
legend. The romantics could see in Heidelberg Castle the story of man himself
struggling to create something enduring only to be foiled and defeated, with
nature swallowing up what is left. It was a castle of hopes and dreams, and
I hadn’t been aware
of any musical connections in Heidelberg, but on the main street there was a
plaque high on the wall of a house, noting that Schumann had lived there as a
student in the years 1829/30.
Passau's Massive Pipe Organ!
There are no fewer
than 168 locks on our sojourn from Amsterdam to Budapest. Not surprisingly, we
were frequently being lifted up or dropped down, and occasionally waiting for
other boats to clear the narrow locks. There was some
congestion at the big lock just before Passau, and so we arrived late. We still got there in time for a walking tour through
this charming town, however, and concluded our visit with an organ recital in Dom St. Stephan.
every town on our journey we were reminded how fickle and threatening Nature can
be. Flooding is an almost annual event, and last year’s flooding in Passau was
undoubtedly some of the worst ever; we saw buildings with marks on the wall
indicating the high water levels year by year. Local citizens have been making
these marks for centuries, and last year’s marks were the highest.
The Dom St. Stephan (St. Stephen's Cathedral),
originally a Gothic church, with all the austerity and gloominess that term
implies, was expanded significantly in the 17th century during the
Baroque era. It is a huge building with stucco decoration, a gold, carved wood
pulpit and elaborate painted walls and ceilings. Restoration has been going on
for years and is nearly completed. The outside is a brilliant white color, and
the interior has been made to look like new.
The Dom St. Stephan organ
is said to be the largest cathedral organ in the world. It was built in 1928
then rebuilt 1978-81. There are 5 separate organs, over 17, 974 pipes and 230
stops. We heard a recital by Michael Kapaner, performing his own improvisation
on a “gegebenes Thema.” It produced a huge sound with lots of special tonal and
spatial effects. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G major BWV 541 was magnificent as
well, if rather larger than life. For me the best piece was Liszt’s Prelude and
Fugue on B-A-C-H – a great piece, performed with flair, virtuosity and
imagination. The Dom St. Stephan organ is most certainly a wonder to hear and
behold… not to be confused, in any way, with the baroque organs for which the
composer Bach wrote, or even the 19th century organs familiar to
After Passau we sailed to Melk, Austria. It was a beautiful day. We took the tour bus up the hill to tour
the abbey, after which we walked down the hill, through the little town, back
to the ship.
The sole attraction on
this stop was the 900-year old Melk Abbey. Like so many buildings in Germany
and Austria, the original edifice is very old, but most of what we see today is
from the Baroque era. Melk Abbey
has been recently restored with bright yellow colors and a few modern
additions. Although impressive, one can’t help but be shocked by the Baroque
additions, especially in the church - particularly all the detailed frescoes on
the ceilings. One would have to lie down on the floor to really see them
without breaking one’s neck. Optical illusions were used in the design of the
abbey; for example, both the library and the mirror room have an extra tier
painted on the ceiling to create the illusion of greater height.
It was Leopold III in
the 11th century who handed over his castle to the Benedictine
monks. They converted it into a fortified abbey, and from then on the spiritual
and intellectual renown of Melk spread throughout Austria.
One of the glories of
Melk Abbey is the library, a gigantic collection of some 80,000 priceless books
hundreds of years old. Our guide told us stories about Maria Theresia visiting
Melk Abbey with a retinue of 300 people. And rooms were found for all of them!
Back on board the
River Empress, and headed for Vienna, we were treated to an Austrian menu of Wiener
Schnitzel and sides, A few hours later, we docked on the Danube, several miles
from the centre of Vienna.
After dinner we were
taken by bus to the Hofburg Palace in the heart of Vienna for an orchestral
concert of music by members of the Strauss family and Mozart. The Hofburg is
one of the largest and grandest public buildings in Vienna and is now the
official residence of the President of Austria. The concert was given in the Festsaal
and it was good fun: lots of comedy in the polkas Vergnügungszug (Pleasure
Train) and Feuerfest (Fireproof). The latter features a pair of anvils used as
percussion instruments – more or less. The orchestra was the Wiener Hofburg-Orchester
conducted by Kurt Schmid. When we returned to the ship about 10:30 pm a late
night Austrian snack awaited us. We had frankfurters and beer.
We took a guided tour
of the city in the morning past all the famous sites. We were dropped in front
of the Albertina Museum near the Wiener Staatsoper, and had strudel and coffee at Café Mozart. The story goes that Graham Greene spent many hours here while writing
the screenplay for The Third Man.
From there we walked down the pedestrian mall to St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The
city is teeming with tourists and it looks energetic and prosperous.
Nearly all the great public buildings have been refurbished, and the shops on Kärtnerstrasse
feature all the best-known international names.
Schönbrunn and the Pressburger Duo
In the afternoon we
took a guided tour of Schönbrunn Palace, the summer home of the Hapsburgs.
“Schonbrunn” means “Beautiful Spring.” It was incredibly crowded there with
dozens of tour groups - shoulder to shoulder from room to room. We saw about 20
rooms in this vast palace and our guide was very informative about Maria Theresia,
Franz Josef, and all the key historical figures of this period. We noted that
there was a well-stocked Chinese room and a lot of chinoiserie elsewhere.
Outside the palace there are vast gardens with mazes and architectural
structures of various kinds. In recent years the Vienna Philharmonic has given
annual concerts in the vast gardens. Christoph Eschenbach will lead this year’s
concert in May.
The Third Man was in evidence everywhere in Vienna.
Our guides pointed out the ferris wheel in the Prater used for a scene in the
film. At one point during our tour we noticed a group of tourists wearing hard
hats. They were about to tour the sewers of Vienna. The sewers figure
prominently in the climactic chase scene in The
The ship sailed from
Vienna at sunset and during the evening we passed by the city of Bratislava in
Slovakia. When we stopped to transit one of the locks on the Danube we were
joined by two musicians known as the Pressburger Duo. “Pressburg” was the old
name for Bratislava. On board in the lounge the Pressburger Duo gave one of the most remarkable
concerts I have ever seen or heard. The two musicians are Robert Puskar who
plays the violin, the pan flute and a host of other folk instruments from the
region, and Peter Ninaj, a pianist and accordionist. Both men worked for years
at the operetta theatre known as Nova Scena in Bratislava.
Puskar is a virtuoso
fiddler of the highest order and tossed off some of the most difficult
showpieces in the repertoire as if they were child’s play. Then while the
audience was still pulling itself together after this dazzling show, he
re-presented himself as an opera singer, and not a bad one either. Finally, he captured
the crowd with a succession of performances on various folk instruments
starting with the pan flute.
music-lovers may recall how a man named Zamfir popularized this instrument back
in the 1970s and then vanished without a trace, taking the pan flute with him.
The pan flute remains a beautiful instrument capable of coveying the tenderest
feelings, and Puskar proved himself to be a master on this instrument too. This
concert was more than music, incorporating a good deal of humour, musical and
otherwise. Great stuff for cruise entertainment, with a level of musicianship
and imagination that should not be underestimated.
Liszt, and a Gypsy Trio
In Budapest we stayed
at the Intercontinental, a short drive along the waterfront from where our ship
had docked. It is in a perfect location, on the Danube near the Chain Bridge,
looking across at the Statue of Liberty and the Gellert memorial on the hills
in Buda. The lighting at night is spectacular.
Both Vienna and
Budapest have hundreds of buildings from the Hapsburg era and earlier, but
today’s Vienna has managed to move with the times – it’s modern and affluent - while
preserving the glorious palaces and public and private buildings from past centuries.
In contrast, Budapest, while it has lots to boast about in the way of
architectural achievements, where the restoration process has been much slower,
has lagged behind the times. Buildings appear freshly cleaned and painted in
Vienna; in Budapest they are often blackened (the results of bombings and
battle) and depressing. The political recovery too has been much slower in
Budapest. One fears for the future with the “far right” again coming to
prominence. As a side note: pianist Andras Schiff has declared that he will not
return to his homeland while the current regime remains in charge.
I had been in
Budapest several times before this visit and had fond memories of conducting
in the newly-restored Vigado, a beautiful concert hall where Liszt had played.
On this visit I was shocked to see that the Vigado was now shuttered and being
allowed to fall apart. It is no longer used for concerts or anything else.
We had breakfast in
the hotel. Not very good: cold coffee and disappointing pastries.
The next day was a different story. Just around the corner from the hotel was Café Gerbeaud, the most famous coffee house in Budapest. And it lived up to its
reputation. We sat outside on the patio facing the bustling square, and enjoyed
a piping hot cappuccino and delicious pastries. Café Gerbeaud was built in 1858
of stucco, marble, exotic woods and bronze and it attracted famous clientele
for many years. When Budapest fell on hard times during the Nazi and Soviet
eras Café Gerbeaud suffered too and became a shadow of its former self. But in
1995 it was fully restored and today looks splendid.
In the afternoon we
took a cab to the House of Terror. This is a museum documenting the horrors of
both the Nazi and the Soviet occupations of Hungary. In 1944, this very
building was the headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis, and between 1945 and 1956
it was the headquarters of the notorious communist terror organizations, the
AVO and its successor the AVH. In
the words of the museum brochure, “60 Andrássy
Avenue has become the house of terror and dread.” In the basement of this
building the Hungarian Nazis known as the Arrow Cross Party tortured and killed
hundreds of people. It was appalling to see video interviews with people who
had been victims and to watch all the mundane details of how it was done.
Andrássy Avenue, on which this museum chronicling
the horrors of Hungary’s history is located, is one of the most beautiful
streets in Budapest – incongruous, all this loveliness in the same space as the
House of terror.
We passed by a
monument to Liszt in Liszt Square and stopped for coffee at the beautiful Alexandra
book store. It has its own coffee house and in general it could have been a
model for many of the Barnes and Noble stores in the United States, except that
the architecture of, and the artwork in this building are far more interesting; the Alexandra is as much an art gallery as a bookstore. While many retailers in Budapest may
be struggling to grow their businesses, this store was well-stocked and full of
For dinner we strolled
down the waterfront in front of our hotel to a restaurant called Dunacorso, and were seated on the patio. The food was delicious (I had Paprika Veal Stew), and the music
- a gypsy trio - was excellent as well. Each of
the three players was a virtuoso in his own right: violin (Lajos Padar), cimbalom (Gustav Malacsik), and double bass
(Ferenc Rigo). Their program included the music that inspired Brahms to write
his Hungarian Dances, as well as popular
songs, opera arias, and jazz – all of it performed with passion and superb
technique. Instead of tipping them, we bought one of their CDs.
As mentioned earlier, I had visited
Budapest, Vienna, and Amsterdam before, but to experience these cities as part
of a cruise down the Rhine, the Main and the Danube is something else
altogether. The ship (River Empress) is small – only acommodates about 120 passengers – and
elegant, with a first-class dining room. The food, in general, was
excellent…and with great imagination, the chef planned each day’s menu to
relate to the region we were passing through.
Labels: brahms, Concert_Review, Hungarian State Opera House, klassische Musik, musica classica, musique classique, Passau organ, Schumann, Vienna Philharmonic, Wiener Hofburg-Orchester