Concerto recording of the year – Ammann, Ravel and Bartók perfection by Andreas Haefliger, Susanna Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic

Times may be testing, but the art of piano concerto thrives. Last year marked the premieres of no less than five extraordinary concertos, three of them released in album format this year. 

Launching 2019, Daniel Barenboim gave the first performance of Matthias Pintscher’s NUR (2018) in the Boulezsaal in Berlin, with the composer conducting the Boulez Ensemble. 

On 7 March, two world premieres were heard, as John Adams’s Must the Devil Have all the Good Tunes? (2018) received its first outing at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, with Yuja Wang, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel and Kirill Gerstein augured Thomas Adès’s Piano Concerto (2018) with the Boston Symphony, conducted by the composer. 

Two further premieres were heard at the BBC Proms. On 28 August, Ryan Wigglesworth’s Piano Concerto was first performed at the Royal Albert Hall, with Marc-André Hamelin as soloist and the composer conducting the Britten Sinfonia. Just nine days earlier, On 19 August, Andreas Haefliger joined the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo for the world premiere of Dieter Ammann’s The Piano Concerto (Gran Toccata) (2016-19).    

In the course of 2020, recordings of the concertos by Adès and Adams have been released by Deutsche Grammophon, featuring their premiere performers. Joining the roster, BIS records has released the first recording of the Ammann concerto, with Andreas Haefliger teaming up with Susanna Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic. 

Recorded in conjunction with the Finnish premiere performances on 6 and 7 November 2019 at the Helsinki Music Centre, the Ammann concerto is coupled with Maurice Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand (1929-30) and Béla Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1945) on the new SACD release. 

With all the parameters aptly aligned, the new BIS album is perfection on so many levels. In terms of programming, the three concerti make a tremendous playlist. Opening with the thirty-minute, one-movement Ammann concerto, the disc focuses on the novelty, followed by two established twentieth century concertos, both sharing sonic realms, textures and spiritual connections with the dazzling Ammann score. 

All superbly recorded, with top-class engineering, the album marks a highpoint in the Helsinki Philharmonic discography and a milestone of the Mälkki era. 

Described as cornucopia by Mälkki, the Ammann concerto is an astounding creation, fusing together myriad of stylistic features and playing techniques, yet yielding to a completely organic entity, clad in the most wondrous textures. 

Subtitled Gran Toccata, the concerto celebrates virtuosity, both in terms of its tremendous solo part and astounding orchestration, providing challenge par excellence to everybody involved. For the listener, the concerto is a profoundly rewarding experience, enhanced by each encounter. 

According to the composer’s note, ”the ’fire’ of this music is to be perceived as a beacon to fight climate change.” There is indeed an inextinguishable fire at the core of the music, manifesting as a white heat here and a red flame there, providing incessant inspiration for the listener and, I would imagine, the performers alike. 

Looking at the score, Ammann is very specific on the sound and texture he wants, as demonstrated by ever-detailed instructions to the performers. This is of course pure craftsmanship too, devised in order to save the orchestra’s rehearsal time. 

Luckily able to attend both the rehearsals and the Finnish premiere, I remember being struck by the mastery and teamwork of Haefliger, Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic, resulting in a firm grasp of this complex score upon its first outing. On disc, their first-rate music-making is further polished and fine-tuned, without compromising the emotional immediacy of the concert performance. 

In the course of its 632 bars The Piano Concerto ventures through intriguing musical universes, echoing the realms of a Baroque toccata, the nineteenth century virtuoso, the twentieth century idioms for Ravel to Ligeti, and not forgetting jazz, yet sounding ever rivetingly original. Both challenging and accessible, the concerto is a masterpiece. 

The concerto begins to take shape and hue with a nine-bar introduction based upon a single pitch, an A played in various staccato guises by the solo piano, joined by woodblocks, marimba, harp, gongs, vibraphone and double basses, concluding with a compelling mixture of a Bartók pizzicato and pizzicato tremolando from the full string section. 

From here, the music builds up to a tour-de-force workout for the soloist and the orchestra, interwoven into the most imaginative contrapuntal fabrics, resolving into the first cadenza on bars 153-185. Another joint feature of fast, heated music for the solo piano and the orchestra ensues, before the music travels through a wormhole into a parallel universe. 

On the second track of the disc, comprising bars 272-445, the music is permuted into the most surprising guises and instrumental combinations, including woodblocks and log drums, alongside fleeting references to Gershwin and various jazz sonorities of muted brass. 

A second cadenza ensues on bars 402-426, paving the way for a misurato tutti, engaging the soloist and the full orchestra into a whirlwind of sixteenth-note-pulsations. Another intergalactic jump occurs, as the music comes suddenly to a standstill on bars 487-490. 

After a short transition, the concerto arrives on its most touching passage, marked Corale malinconico, molto legato e tenuto. I would argue that the following eight bars contain some of the most beautiful music written in the twenty-first century by far. Deeply moving and shun of all false sentimentality, the brief chorale is absolutely spellbinding. 

Following the chorale, one more build-up is heard, before the concerto enters the coda. The glistening textures become gradually less complex, as one musical layer after another evaporates into the mist. A white heat of sustained lines remains, as the soloist utters the closing staccato chords, echoed by a distant rumor from the bass drum and strings. 

Andreas Haefliger, the Helsinki Philharmonic and Susanna Mälkki rehearsing the Dieter Ammann concerto at the Helsinki Music Centre on 6 November 2019. © Jari Kallio

A truly one-of-a-kind experience, the performance by Haefliger, Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic stands out as one of the most compelling accounts of the twenty-first century music captured on disc. 

The Ammann concerto alone would be more than sufficient to fill an album, but to our great fortune, Haefliger and his musical companions, together with the BIS production team, had chosen to include forty five minutes worth of extra perfection on the new disc. 

Now, Ravel might not be the first composer one would associate with the deep-hued sonorities of the Helsinki Philharmonic. Yet, as the Concerto for the Left Hand recorded here and the recent concert account of Ma mere l’Oye (1908-19/1911-12), conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen demonstrate, the orchestra has a thorough grasp on the Ravelian textures. 

As is well known, the Concerto for the Left Hand was written for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein,who lost his right arm in the Great War. Conceived in one movement, with several sections of diverse musical idioms integrated into a logical (and somewhat surreal) continuum, the Ravel concerto makes a perfect match with the Ammann. 

In the solo part, Ravel is a master illusionist, crafting textures of such ravishing virtuosity that one would assume there being two, or, at times, three hands playing. With impressive jumps and challenging melodic assignments given to the left thumb, Ravel wrought a luminous solo line, brought to life with the utmost sensitivity and astonishing virtuosity by Haefliger. 

The seamless teamwork between the soloist, the conductor and the orchestra is again evident throughout the Ravel concerto. From its rumbling opening bars, emanating from the string basses and the lowest reeds, the score unfolds in dream-like manner, giving rise to the most inspiring sonic imagery. 

From the very first bar on, one is amazed by the unique transparency of the orchestral playing, beautifully served by the top-class engineering. Mälkki’s build up to the first tutti climax is one of the most awe-inspiring in the recorded catalogue. 

The solo piano enters with a cadenza(!), picking up the orchestral thunder, and masterfully distilling it into an invigorating pianistic fantasy. Clad in the most beautiful guise by Haefliger, the solo part is rooted in delicate phrasing and perfect control of the musical line, resulting in a truly unique reading of Ravel’s superb score. 

As the concerto unfolds, its dreamscapes grow darker, with sarcasm and nightmares entailed into its nocturnal vistas. The rhythmic details of the inner sections are worked out with precision by Haefliger and the Helsinki Philharmonic musicians, ever well-guided by Mälkki. 

Clad in vivid colours, the orchestral fabric shines out in its full splendour, as the concerto builds towards its climax. Admirably phrased and balanced by both the soloist and the orchestra, the music bursts into full sonic bloom with impressive force, only to be transformed into a thoroughly enchanting, song-like passage for the solo piano.

On the closing pages, the orchestra rejoins the soloist, layer by layer, until the music is brought to its abrupt end by the sudden appearance of a brief, march-like figure. Realized with a wonderful sense of dramaturgy, the performance comes to a gripping close.   

”For me, it’s not about being radical. I just might have a very strong instinct of doing things in a certain way”, Mälkki said in when I interviewed her back in June. In both the Ravel and the Bartók concertos recorded here, there are many details in the orchestral parts thought afresh, in terms of phrasing and balance. 

Consulting the scores, one notices that Mälkki’s conception is always rooted in the printed text of the music. Mälkki’s reading bears such compelling naturalness that after repeated listening, one begins to wonder, why we’ve had to wait until 2020 to hear the music sounded out this way. 

Apart from the unfinished orchestration of its very closing bars, the Piano Concerto No. 3 (1945) is Bartók’s final completed score. Unlike its two imposing predecessors, the Third Concerto adopts a more subtle approach, while retaining all key aspects of Bartók’s vocabulary. 

Cast in three movements, the concerto is rooted in Bartók’s highly personal take on neoclassicism. The allegretto opening movement is set in motion with a rhythmic ground from the strings, punctuated by a gentle timpani and joined by the solo piano, uttering the first theme. 

Coloured by the sustained woodwind lines, the music builds towards a first climax, joined by brass. Following the introduction, a brilliant sequence of musical development ensues. As the score unfolds, its intricate complexity becomes more and more apparent. 

A combination of virtuosity and sublime phrasing, the opening movement is a challenge par excellence. Cleared with flying colours by Haelfilger and the Helsinki Philharmonic, with Mälkki, the performance is a worthy follow-up to the delightful all-Bartók album released by orchestra last year. 

The adagio religioso second movement is the last of Bartók’s unique night-musics, and also one of the most compelling of them. Opening with a brief orchestral introduction, the solo piano joins, with a delicate theme, developed in dialogue with the strings. Haefliger’s performance aptly notes the bluesy undertones of the music, to a delightful effect. 

A contrasting middle section ensues, with its proto-Messiaen bird-calls for piano and winds, hovering high above the nocturnal ambience of the strings. Rarely have I heard this passage clad in such magical sonorities.

Bartók’s finale, an allegro vivace, is set into motion with an upbeat introduction, before launching into fugal writing, providing the soloist and the orchestra with a contrapuntal challenge. The performance by Haefliger and the orchestra, with Mälkki, is pure joy. 

Propelled by a powerhouse timpani, the orchestral fabric soars, as Haefliger simply nails the solo part, to a ravishing effect. A performance equally memorable as the thrilling live account by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the Berlin Philharmonic and François-Xavier Roth at the Philharmonie in October 2019, the recorded take by Haefliger, Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic is one of the very finest on disc, wholeheartedly recommended to newcomers and seasoned Bartókians alike.

All things considered, the new BIS disc is the finest concerto album of 2020, in terms of performance, programming and engineering. With this top team, further concerto recordings would be more than welcome. 

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

Susanna Mälkki, conductor

Andreas Haefliger, piano

Dieter Ammann: The Piano Concerto (Gran Toccata) (2016-19)

Maurice Ravel: Concerto for the Left Hand (1929-30) for piano and orchestra

Béla Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 3, BB 127, Sz. 119 (1945)

Recorded at the Music Centre, Helsinki, March 2019 (Ravel), June 2019 (Bartók) and 6-7 November 2019 (Ammann)

BIS-2310 (2020), 1 SACD

© Jari Kallio 

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