Streetcar no. 11 in the city-colors of sky blue and white delivers me to the end-station of Tiefenbrunnen. I walk another five minutes in the pleasant Sunday morning sunshine parallel to lake Zürich before I find myself at the door the the small performance hall of the Zürich Chamber Orchestra (ZKO). Their principal concert venue is the Tonhalle downtown, but the orchestra, or part of it, performs some of their forty performances a year in museums, churches, in other Swiss cities or even abroad, and a few select ones in this intimate venue.
Set in a mixed residential/industrial research area, the small hall was initially used as a practice venue because of its excellent acoustics. Recently its status has been elevated and now serves as the backdrop to an innovative concert series. Like this morning’s Coffee & Croissant concert, or the Krabbel (crawl) afternoon concerts for young children, or the performance with prominent guests. Bringing classical music to a greater range of audiences.
After the joint coffee hour in the foyer, the atmosphere is animated as I sit next to a couple in the front row. The hall rises steeply behind me in a dozen or so more rows. The room is painted a calm beige, ceiling and all, and the only ‘decorations’ are the black piano and the chairs, ready for the string quartet of the Zürich Chamber Orchestra. The focus is evidently on performance, and that’s fine with me. Two compositions are on the program: a Hayden string quartet and the Brahm’s piano quintet in f minor, op. 34.
“Papa Hayden” as an admiring Mozart used to call his older contemporary affectionately, of course always delights! What blew me away was the Brahm’s piece, which I heard and saw performed for the first time. What a startling, adventurous composition and absorbingly so within the first few bars of music, eventually leading to a remarkable finale!
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The first violinist introduced the piece: Brahms had composed it in the summer of 1864 and dedicated it to the reputedly very beautiful Princess Anna of Hesse. Curious as to what kind of a person Her Royal Highness was and whether she would have appreciated such a grandiose dedication, my research revealed an arranged marriage to a socially suitable, but emotionally distant Prince Frederick William of Hesse-Kassel, after young Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria had already fallen in love with Anna, but was prevented from proposing to her. Anna is said to have been a highly intelligent woman. She was a classically trained pianist of great talent. Johannes Brahms knew the princess personally and it seems likely that she would have been able to play the piece on the piano herself.
Today, by the musicians of ZKO, the piece was performed by piano, two violins, viola and cello as was written for most quintets of the time. The music clearly impressed and elevated not only me as standing ovation after standing ovation made the flushed musicians return for an encore.
Reluctant to let go of the music or the experience, the audience lingered in the hall and foyer where we had just met and now met anew in a different frame of mind. In Johannes Brahm’s words: “Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed, shaken in the wind.” The German composer was known to be a perfectionist, but this performance would surely have given satisfaction to even his high standards.