From small beginnings … a dazzling tour de force from pianist Andreas Haefliger

The very start of Dieter Ammann’s year-old ‘The Piano Concerto’ (Gran Toccata) balances on a single note before percussion join in the fray, then strings, then more percussion – some of it decidedly aquatic-sounding – and once up and running Ammann calls on the work’s dedicatee Andreas Haefliger to toy with Gershwinian syncopations, face a huge orchestra head-on (a tuba sometimes growls conspicuously) and keep up the pace. Absolutely no flagging allowed, you understand. The second part of this highly inventive half-hour tussle is perhaps the most argumentative, at least initially, whereas once into part three after some Reichian pulsing and what sounds like a visit to the grimy backstreets where Bartók’s Mandarin was murdered Ammann pauses for thought and cues a spot of genuinely Romantic piano writing. It’s here more than elsewhere in the work that you encounter some ethereal tone painting (the brass in particular are quite magical) whereas for the end there are more gnomic, staccato chords repeated again and again.

So, that’s the measure of it: we end as we began, on the edge of a question of no little significance. It’s a terrific piece and Haefliger successively shifts roles from virtuoso, to a collaborative first among equals, an attentive bystander and a poet. His playing, which is never less than sensitive, is often stupendous: he shows absolutely no fear and the Helsinki Philharmonic under the highly gifted Susanna Mälkki are consistently on the ball, whether picking up from where he leaves off or goading him to further action. How to sum up this extraordinary piece? I spontaneously came up with idea of John Adams and Bartók having a jar or two at Prokofiev’s pad. That’s the general drift, anyway and BIS’s recording is nothing short of fabulous (thank you, executive producer Robert Suff).

Next up on this remarkable programme Haefliger, Mälkki and the Helsinki band embrace the Concerto for the Left Hand that Ravel wrote for pianist Paul Wittgenstein (brother of the philosopher Ludwig) who lost his right arm in the First World War. Again, the musical symbiosis really tells for a performance where tautness and clarity of articulation combine and the bitter, black humour of the marching central section jars as it should. Then there’s Bartók’s airy Third Concerto, Haefliger here parading a lightness of touch I haven’t encountered since the wonderful Czech pianist Eva Bernathová recorded the work with the Czech Philharmonic under Karel Ancerl many years ago. The central ‘Adagio religioso’ is especially beautiful: Haefliger’s first entry held me utterly captive. In short we’re treated to three very different musical worlds brought together by skilled performers who are fully up to the task of interpreting each of them with conviction.

Ammann, Ravel, Bartók  Andreas Haefliger (piano), Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Susanna Mälkki  BIS BIS-2310 SACD

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