AMMANN: The Piano Concerto (Grand Toccata). RAVEL: Concerto for the Left Hand. BARTÓK: Piano Concerto No. 3 / Andreas Haefliger, pno; Helsinki Philharmonic Orch.; Susanna Mälkki, cond / Bis SACD-2310
I was curious to review this recording not merely because the music looked interesting, but also because Andreas Haefliger is the son of one of my all-time favorite tenors, Ernst Häfliger, a superb musician who could sing anything from Mozart to Stravinsky and make it sound good. Just as a small sample size of Häfliger’s extraordinary talent, I have recordings by him of Beethoven’s Fidelio (Fricsay), Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (Karajan), Frank Martin’s In Terra Pax (Ansermet) and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (Walter), and all are among my top-tier performances of these works. Andreas was born in 1962, when his father was 43 years old, sort of a change-of-life baby.
Dieter Ammann’s concerto is the most recent work on this disc, having been written in 2016-19. The opening is sparse, with the piano playing repeated single-note A’s, which eventually move into chords and then into a sort of minimalist repetition of that note in different rhythms with other notes around it before branching out into a sort of cadenza that expands exponentially. The orchestral accompaniment is sparse and geared mostly towards the higher, brighter instruments. Thus we have moved in the space of a few minutes from minimalism to very complex writing within a relatively narrow range of notes and harmony. This work, of which this is the premiere recording, was written for Haefliger. In the liner notes, Ammann admits that when Haefliger approached him to write it he was somewhat reluctant, not only because he is a slow, meticulous composer but because he waits for inspiration and that is something that cannot be forced along a timeline. One of the things I personally liked about this first movement is that, among other things, the music incorporates a bit of jazz rhythms (note, for instance, the passage around the 6:28 mark), yet there were also some moments where I felt that perhaps Ammann had to stop and re-start in writing the piece, which caused a bit of disjunction. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating piece and, overall, I liked it very much. It’s actually a sort of “web of sound” in which the pianist is caught up, with the orchestra being an active rather than a passive partner.
In the second movement, which follows the first without a break, Ammann indulges in some “ambient” writing for orchestra, but since he maintains an edgy rhythmic pattern and now engages in some edgy harmonies as well it is far from sounding soft or relaxing. This movement is particularly active for the orchestra, which flits through some extraordinarily difficult passages, and I would be remiss if I did not extend my praise to Susanna Mälkki, who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite modern conductors (I have her recording of Bartók’s The Wooden Prince and his Miraculous Mandarin Suite, which are stupendous performances). To put it generally, Ammann’s concerto sounds like a music box which its owner has dropped down the stairs, making it go awry in all manner of strange yet fascinating ways. With its emphasis on rhythm as the basis of the score, it almost sounds as if shards of brightly-colored glass are flying in all different directions at once. Thus it is not going to please the listener who wants a Piano Concerto to have “tunes” they can hum on the way out, but will certainly appeal to more adventurous listeners and musicians.
The last movement also opens with a sustained atonal orchestral chord, with the pianist nudging things along with rhythmic gestures, until a series of repeated wind chords get the orchestra moving as well. These chords, however, eventually “fall” through the harmonic spectrum chromatically, leading to a real explosion of trumpets playing rapid eighth-note figures while the horns and trombones play around it. The music then “crashes” to a halt, after which soft, edgy chords are heard, accompanied by chimes from the percussionist, before the pianist returns to play some gingerbread around the edges. I particularly applaud Ammann for coming up with his own, very personal concept of orchestral “sound.” After a dead stop, the pianist suddenly, surprisingly, plays a somewhat lyrical, Romantic-sounding melody for a while, to which the orchestra responds in kind, before the winds help to pull the music apart as the tempo again increases, then recedes again. The concerto ends quietly, suddenly stopping on a piano chord.
Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand was, of course, written on a commission from pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in World War I. The irony of this was that, even as just a left-handed pianist, Wittgenstein was a terrible artist who missed notes and didn’t play the music at all to Ravel’s satisfaction (there’s a performance of it by him on YouTube if you don’t believe me). I have two good performances of this piece in my collection, one by Andrei Gavrilov with Simon Rattle conducting and the other by Florian Uhlig with Pablo Gonzalez on the podium. This one is clearly competitive, with both Haefliger and Mälkki presenting an exciting and highly musical reading of the score. Although written in Ravel’s late style, after he discovered American jazz, there aren’t any jazz references in this score as there are in his Piano concerto in G.
I’m very fussy about performances of any of Bartók’s piano music since I have a fairly good-sized collection of the composer playing his own works. He played them with much more of a legato feeling, less angular than most modern pianists. Haefliger takes a halfway view towards the music here, phrasing the slower or more melodic passages elegantly while playing the more angular music with a more staccato touch. Yet it’s still a valid interpretation of the music, and I liked it. The second movement, in particular, is exquisitely played.
My general impression of Haefliger’s playing is that it is very dynamic and colorful. Like his father, he understands the importance of rhythm, even in slow passages, and knows how to maximize what the composer has written.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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