The Ammann Piano Concerto “Gran Toccata” Explored

Munich, Gasteig; January 9, 10, & 12, 2020—The Piano Concerto of Swiss composer Dieter Ammann was supposed to have been premiered at Vienna’s Konzerthaus with the Vienna Symphony. It wasn’t ready, however, and the concert last April (reviewed for ClassicsToday) featured Bartók’s Third, instead. The actual premiere had to wait for the BBC Proms, which, come to think of it, really isn’t the worst place for a composer to have a new work first performed. (Honni soit qui mal y pense!) It has since gone on to travel successfully to Taipei, Boston, Helsinki, and most recently Munich. These three Munich concerts featured the typical formulaic concert programming: Wagner’s Lohengrin Overture, now actually the Ammann Piano Concerto, and then in the “symphony slot” (as was the case at the Vienna concert) Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra.

Inauspicious opening: The Munich Philharmonic violin section(s) made a dog’s breakfast out of the Wagner: Un-mysterious, generally off, ugly-toned, shapeless, with missed entries amid general imprecision. The beautifully playing wind and brass sections entering did not actually help matters, because it only increased the contrast with the wailing violins. The best that could be said about the performance might be that Susanna Mälkki coolly administered the work without allowing it to drip with cheap emotion.

The concluding Strauss tone poem, difficult to pull off successfully at the best of times (and also pretty rough going in the Vienna concert) was particularly dire on the first night, allegedly worse on the second, and might have been just as easily dismissed with two sentences, had not the Sunday matinée come along. Matinées are not usually a guarantor for great Strauss or indeed pretty much any music, seeing that orchestra musicians tend not to be at peak operating temperature that early in the day. Yet on that Sunday at the Gasteig, the energy of the orchestra and the audience and consequently the energy of the Ammann Concerto and especially the Strauss was notably different and downright beguiling.

No longer was the Zarathustra work besotted with mediocrity and total lack of coherence; it had acquired momentum. The de-facto string octet that occurs soon after the Über-famous introduction was something to behold. The gorgeously playing first desk violas led the neatly playing first two desks of cellos and the two first violinists in bravura music-making of a group that is then gradually joined by more and more players, in what is one of Strauss’ more moving orchestral effects. The usual massive lull between the work’s overwhelming opening and the eventually occurring first violin’s catch-phrase that leads Zarathustra to its eventually ambiguous finale had become very short, indeed.

But Strauss really wasn’t the main reason why many people either came to or stayed away from this concert. (Lots of empty seats in the Philharmonic Hall of the Gasteig.) That honor went to the heart and center of the program, the Ammann concerto subtitled “Gran Toccata”. The composition, receiving its German premiere here and fairly easy even on the conservative ears of the Munich Philharmonic subscription holders, is really a concerto for orchestra and piano, rather than a classical piano concerto. There is no back-and-forth between the orchestra and the piano; Andreas Haefliger, for whom it was written, only plays alone in the three extensive cadenzas and for the single repeated note that gets the concerto under way and the dominant repeated chord that closes it.

Generally, the concerto is characterized by a locomotive forward motion, traveling pulses, a steady energy that only occasionally breaks out into percussive nervousness. The concerto’s mien is conventional in the best sense; certainly consonant and even the quarter-tone slides sound more like a Chinese mourning procession than deliberately or gratuitously “modern music”. Amid all the busyness, the most touching moments occur whenever the clouds of orchestral denseness lift to reveal single sections and the soloist.

The ingredients of the work are more interesting than the structure at a distance. Whenever sunshine penetrates the cloud cover, the whole concerto lights up from within. A brass chorale that breaks through some two thirds into the concerto, for example, sounds like the soundtrack to the parting of a dear friend whom we contemplate with some equanimity before almost getting run over by the suddenly ensuing orchestral traffic. Makes you wonder how it would sound if everyone in the orchestra actually played exactly what was written and not just approximate their parts. If only the old orchestral canard “Oh, no one can hear the difference, anyway” – sadly all too common a reality in such situations – could be avoided. For that’s what even just a dozen lazy musicians’ attitude steals from the listeners: The knowledge of what might have been.

There is a slightly frustrating element about the concerto, too, when you see the pianist hard at work – but can’t hear a thing. Granted, it’s likely you still hear all or most of the notes, which are also distributed among the orchestra and travel in the space, very much as if the pianist was indeed playing the grand keyboard of the orchestra – like a musico-mechanical puppeteer. But that cannot be assumed without knowledge of the score, and the impression is instead of an orchestra (neither able nor willing to stick to the low dynamic markings) drowning out the soloist and the poor chap having learned several swaths of pages for naught, because he might as well have substituted “Chopsticks” during those passages.

Regardless: The Piano Concerto is a fascinating work for its mix of being both unlike most anything that’s being served up in contemporary classical fare and equally not sounding like it tries to be new or different for its own sake. If it were a piece of architecture, it would be said to have been built around the human scale. It will next be performed at the Lucerne Festival in late August.