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Ammann, Ravel, Bartók: Piano Concertos - Haefliger, Mälkki

Ammann, Ravel, Bartók: Piano Concertos - Haefliger, Mälkki

BIS  BIS 2310

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Ammann: Piano Concerto (Gran Toccata)
Ravel: Piano Concerto for the left hand
Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 3

Andreas Haefliger, piano
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra
Susanna Mälkki, conductor


When Andreas Haefliger conceived this unusual combination of concertos it was with the aim of putting into perspective three pieces, each a unique and highly expressive highlight from the composers' output. That Maurice Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand and Béla Bartók's Third Piano Concerto fulfilled the requirements was a given: towards the end of his life Bartók wrote his most lyrically expressive concerto while Ravel, inspired by the qualities of the left hand register, wrote a piece full of dark yearning and grotesquely fauvistic dances.

The third work was more of a gamble, being a newly commissioned and not yet written concerto. The risk was a calculated one, however, given the stellar reputation of the composer Dieter Ammann, as well as Haefliger's personal acquaintance with him. But as Haefliger himself remarks: 'Little could have prepared me for the exceptional work I was to receive: The Piano Concerto - Gran Toccata. Keeping tradition close by as an ally in the layering of harmony and rhythm, it explodes into futuristic visions in an extremely personal language and, through its kaleidoscopic colors and pianistic virtuosity, reinvents the genre for the 21st century. ' The concerto was premiered at the 2019 BBC Proms, and Andreas Haefliger has since performed it in Boston, Munich and Helsinki, where the present recording was made.

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - November 26, 2020

You’ll be forgiven for not knowing the Swiss composer, Dieter Ammann. But now it is high time you do. Though I realize that some traditional listeners may find it difficult to become an ardent advocate of his music, I would urge you to have a serious listen to his concerto for piano and orchestra, here given its world premiere recording. It has such an immediate impact that chances are that you, as it did with me, will quickly get carried away with the mind-boggling effect of the energetic soundscapes Ammann has managed to create. The question that springs en passant to mind: Is he an a-symptomatic innovator or a gifted eccentric? Perhaps both. Using instruments in a way they were not meant to: The wrong side of the violin’s soundpost, the inside of the piano, or even playing the violin without a bow (!), is not easy to accept for a traditionalist. But if things hadn’t moved forward over the years, we would still be singing madrigals.

With this composer two things are evident: Ammann is a serious one, meticulously putting a score together, taking years if necessary, whilst, secondly, feeling free from any limiting convention. For this concerto “The original working title was ‘no templates’, which primarily signifies an openness of thought in my approach to this genre, but also an openness regarding the variety of means used”. And that’s just what it is.

It brought me back to the nineteen sixties when experimental innovation seemed to be the only way forward. Ripe and green occupied the music scene with compositions like “Concerto for Stringed Emptiness and Triangle’. Electronics entered the field as well. People were overwhelmed. Embracing each and every turn for fear of being set aside as a non-connoisseur. A self-cleaning operation followed. Only a handful survived, and rightly so, like György Ligeti promoting "The complex polyphony of the individual parts, embodied in a harmonic-musical flow in which the harmonies do not change suddenly, but merge into one another; one clearly discernible interval combination is gradually blurred, and from this cloudiness it is possible to discern a new interval combination taking shape."

Towards the end of the 20th-century things calmed down. But where some returned to more traditional music-making, Ammann, who started composing in the nineties, kept - in all evidence - to unconventional lines such as set out by respected reformists, like one of his musical mentors, Wolfgang Rihm. Is his complex, innovating spiritual output built on sublimation of what started in the decades before? I invite you to listen for yourself, whilst answering the question to what extent this Gran Toccata, in all its indisputable ingenuity, is the work of an architect or rather that of a musician? But then again, isn’t architecture the hallmark of a composer worth his salt? In the end, you may agree with me that all the prizes bestowed on Dieter Ammann over the past twenty years or so have been well merited.

One final point: One of the best parts in all of this is played by the soloist. Being the dedicatee of sorts, Andreas Haefliger graces the listener with an account that in my view cannot easily be bettered, if at all. Seconded by Susanna Mälkki, another successful blossom of the immensely productive Finnish conductor tree, a new emotional experience will be yours.

In his time Ravel, too, was a nonconformist composer. His piano concerto for the left hand, ordered by the Austrian pianist, Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in the Great War, did not get an easy reception. It was met with partial disapproval by the dedicatee and with Ravel's fellow countryman, Alfred Cortot, alike. Both made changes to the score, infuriating the composer.

Here, the concerto is recorded in two movements, though both are connected into one. However, three different episodes of slow-fast-slow are recognizable, contradicting the usual fast-slow-fast. By accident or on purpose?

Competition is stiff and one might ask: Is Andreas Haefliger the right choice for the job? And is The Helsinki Philharmonic under the baton of Susanna Mälkki the best support? Shouldn’t BIS have opted for a French Connection? We should have known better. Robert von Bahr has a special nose for sniffing out quality. A serious music lover himself, he hardly ever disappoints devoted musical friends. And so it is this time. From a technical and musical standpoint, Haefliger shows himself to be fully up to the mark. And I was pleasantly surprised to hear what Mme Susanna Mälkki has to say in this French repertoire.

We all have our preferences, and I have a soft spot for the convincing account by Vincent Larderet: Ravel: Piano Concerto, Concerto for the left hand, Schmitt - Larderet, Kawka. Whilst he remains my personal SACD choice, Haefliger’s articulate rendition hits many of the right buttons, expertly supported by Mälkki, bringing to bear her French experience with the Paris Ensemble intercontemporain and the French Radio Orchestra with which she premiered Bruno Mantovani’s ballet Abstract/Life 10 years ago.

Turning to Bartok, the high-resolution community will be extremely pleased to finally get a Super Audio version of his third piano concerto on their shelves. And a good version at that.

The tale of this concerto is for many familiar. In an attempt to create something with which his pianist wife, Ditta, could earn some income after his premature death, this inventive, but not always understood modernist, left his maverick path to conceding his final composition to common American taste. The result is nonetheless as mastery as much of the best from his creative brain. Based, as usual, on folk melodies in the opening movement, the main emphasis lies with the extreme beauty of the middle movement.

In comparison with Zoltan Kocsis and Ivan Fischer conducting his Budapest Festival Orchestra (1984 Philips Digital Classics), almost every other account seems to fall flat. Seen in that light I found Haefliger a shade less arousing, but a whole lot more considerate, especially in the middle movement where he brings to rest all the turmoil of Ammann and Ravel in a lovingly stretched out Adagio religioso.

This is an SACD to have. Not least because of the exceptional opportunity to open up your mind to revelatory newcomers like Ammann in a concert offering new visions at every repeated listen. And also because of all the apparent effort that has gone into the recording (live, on different locations, no noises, no applause), and lastly but for many most importantly, of having a top-notch Bartok Third, hitherto not available in high definition. Listen, enjoy, and listen once more.

Blangy-le-Château, Normandy, France.

Copyright © 2020 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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