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Critic’s Notebook: "Gran Toccata" Receives its Belated Premiere in Vienna

Also reviewed for DiePresse: So entsteht ein „moderner Klassiker“

Dieter Ammann's Piano Concerto has unrelenting bite, but also what it takes to become a modern audience favorite.

Five years after it was meant to have been given its world premiere in Vienna, Dieter Ammann’s Piano Concerto Gran Toccata was finally given its first Austrian outing courtesy of the co-commissioning team of Vienna Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna’s Konzerthaus, last Tuesday. In the intermittent years, the concerto has made its way through the world’s concert halls, gotten a recording, and become something of a trademark work for its soloist, Andreas Haefliger, to perform. If anything might keep this work from becoming a modern classic, it’s perhaps the fiendishly difficult solo part that brought Haefliger – perhaps – to the brink of regretting ever having beseeched Ammann to write one in the first place.

available at Amazon
Piano Concerto: Gran Toccata
Andreas Haefliger, Susanna Mälkki,
Helsinki Philharmonic
BIS Records

Conducting the Vienna Symphony Orchestra was Susanna Mälkki, who is a also veteran of this concerto by now, who appears to have conducted every performance, except for the premiere at the BBC Proms, in 2019, including performances in Munich which I reviewed here. Toc-toc-toc: Like woodpecker and echo, Haefliger pecks at the piano to open the work, for the orchestra to respond in kind. The stage is set for a concerto that reminds us, that the piano is (also) a percussive instrument. In keeping with that percussive strain, the orchestral apparatus crackles and rustles like a mouth full of pop rocks. Lyrical beams of sunlight hit the general tumult at various points, daubing surprisingly lyrical patches onto the turbulent musical canvas. There’s no letting up for the soloist, nor for orchestra, except the former’s three extended cadenzas. A brass chorale makes the ears perk. Ditto a duet between piano and marimba. Sometimes it appears as if Haefliger was playing the orchestra as an extension, at times as if the orchestra was subsuming the soloist. There is an in and out of prominence, rather than a back and forth.

It’s a truism, that not the premiere of a work is the important event, but its tenth, fiftieth performance. It reveals different aspects of a work, enables a composition to come into its own, to grow up, even to slip away from its creator’s grasp. Not yet quite from Dieter Ammann’s, who was present and made sure that balances were more to his liking on the second night, but even with balances less to his liking, the performance sounded mightily impressive. At the German premiere, it had still made a much brasher, harsher, hyper-virtuosic impression. In Vienna, perhaps in part due to the increased aplomb of the performing protagonists, it sounded kinder, more colorful, warmer. There will be more opportunities, surely, to hear how it might adapt as it ages in future performances, the world over.

The Schubert Ninth Symphony – announced in central European musicologist fashion as the Eight – was an afterthought. It was performed well enough, a bit on the brash side, with an attempt on fleetness that didn’t quite take, and it couldn’t get out of the shadow of the concerto that had preceded it. If I could have had my way, I would have wanted to hear a Paris Symphony, instead, and before Gran Toccata, not afterward… and intermission-escapees be damned.

Photo © Manuel Chemineau

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