In this first of the summer's open-air "Serenade" concerts, the Belcea Quartet performed in front of the same timber-framed house that the silk merchant Otto Wesendonck offered Richard Wagner as his Zürich home. From April 1857 to July 1858 and in what he coined his “asylum on the green hill” next door to his generous friends, Wagner enjoyed a particularly fruitful creative phase, writing large parts of Tristan and Isolde and setting five poems by his muse Mathilde Wesendonck in the his Wesendonck-Lieder.

Belcea Quartet © Marco Borggreve
Belcea Quartet
© Marco Borggreve

Jumping 160 years ahead, the four Belcea musicians sat – their backs to the villa itself – on a raised black platform half-surrounded at its back and on one side by light walls. The rows of audience facing them spread out on the grass like the ripple of a great wave. It was a warm evening in Zurich, but the slight breeze, shade of the massive trees in the park, and the villa’s illustrious history, made for a highly inviting setting.

The concert began with Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet no. 29 in G major, Op.33 no. 5, a piece finished in 1781 that premiered in Vienna on Christmas Day of the same year. Here in Zurich, its particularly buoyant and “breezy” passage came first, making the perfect concert launch, but one that had to compete with the huge audio burden of a helicopter travelling overhead, whose timing couldn’t have been worse. 

Quartet founder and first violinist Corina Belcea launched the second movement, offering a sublime introductory aria while second violin, Axel Schacher, gave finely-crafted elaborations. In the Scherzo, Krzysztof Chorzelski’s fine viola and Antoine Lederlin’s resonant cello also came to the fore. The last movement was delightful, too, from its regularly tempered dance step and contrasting variations to the spirited musical dialogue among all the players, whose string work was tight as a tick, no pun intended.

Next on the programme was Béla Bartók’s String Quartet no. 6, which was the last string quartet completed before the composer’s death in 1945. The quartet had been begun at the start of the war in Saanen, Switzerland, at a time when Bartók was a guest of conductor Paul Sacher. While each of the work’s four movements begins with the marking mesto (sad), that sets only one marker for this complex work, since it is as much characterised by luminous fragments that release us from the dark. The Belceas launched the first movement with its foreboding viola solo, but went on to include many such contrasts, introducing one glissando after another, and prickly passages that typically recall the vivacity and excitement of Bartok’s other works in the 1930s. 

The second movement moved more into a sequence of dissonant, parallel strokes, a sustained period of glissandi by the first violin, changes in tempi, and a haunting ending. The third introduced a strident and simultaneous striking of strings, recalling the famous horror scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho and a sequence of sustained pizzicato, whose nervous effects were tempered by the lyricism of a meandering ending. The finale moved from a slow-paced, dense start and haunting high line of the first violin into something much livelier, then back to a quiet ending. Sadly, that was all but lost given the competition of yet another aeroplane and a team of ball players nearby. 

After refreshment in the park’s lovely Bonsai garden, we heard Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet no. 6 in F minor from 1847, the last major piece Mendelssohn completed before he died that same year. This mellifluous work is hallmarked by its pleasant melodies; consonance is its middle name. It features predictable increments, repetitive phrases, and frequent one-on-one conversations between instruments. The third movement Adagio was particularly impressive: its swells and recessions came on the heels of tremendous pathos, and pulled hard on the heart strings. Finally, the Allegro molto gave first violin and founder of the quartet, Corina Belcea, a chance to weave a sinuous fibre throughout, and embellish her voice with beautiful filigree work.    

In sum, the musicians did a superb job, and the setting inside the Rietberg Park itself was both historically and visually appealing. Nonetheless, the audio interference of the nearby urban setting saw many of us wanting for a hall whose acoustics did the music more justice. That said, that absence was the evening’s only handicap.