Philharmonia Zürich came charging out of the gates with a première of glut by Dieter Ammann on Friday night at the Konzerthaus. Opening with an unknown contemporary work often seems a technique to allow the orchestra to warm up before the big hits come, but this work had their wholehearted commitment. It was performed with energy and detailed attention, and conductor, percussionist and multi-talent Hans-Peter Achberger conducted by heart and with enviable precision. glut is not only a densely packed work in terms of thematic material, but is also intricately and thoughtfully layered.

Teodor Currentzis © Anton Zavyalov
Teodor Currentzis
© Anton Zavyalov

Ammann constructs complex worlds of sound in which a basic feel or colour remains constant, but all sorts of details shift, evolve and change in a way that feels nearly tangible. His sound is three-dimensional, large and malleable; an animated tone sculpture that has a basic shape, but is also in constant flux. The piece is sectionalized by these different sound worlds, and skillfully constructed to rivet the audience over the span of its 20 minutes. The title means “fervour” or “glow” in German as well as extravagant to an extreme degree in English. Either definition fits the work; both the passionate clarity of its construction as well as the extreme amount of material which the composer incorporated are defining characteristics. The scoring is massive, and the percussion section must have been thrilled to be kept so inventively busy.

Conductor Teodor Currentzis and pianist Hélène Grimaud joined the orchestra for Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major. Just as the composition combines a structural and gestural nod to classicism with the harmonic language and passions of jazz, Grimaud married incredible precision and rigour with moving sensitivity and ease. She led the listener clearly through the score without dropping a detail, but never gave the feeling that she was micro-managing. Grimaud’s intentions, both in phrasal construction and sound production, were both highly intimate and emotionally charged without the least self-indulgence. She knew what she wanted to do, and simply did it.

Life, however, lent a bit of additional drama to the charged climax of the opening movement of the concerto as an elderly audience member – right in Grimaud's eyeline – lost consciousness and a dozen concertgoers scrambled to drag him off for medical help. It took a while for the audience to be soothed back into stillness, and Grimaud gave herself time before beginning the second movement, performing it with intense intimacy and crystalline ostinato. The final movement was a mad, raucous dash of brilliance and the applause was enthusiastic.

Stravinsky’s colourful Firebird Suite rounded out the evening, and here Currentzis was particularly impressive and memorable. Declining to use a baton, he relies heavily on his expressive hands, which flutter, shape and sweep. Currentzis’ style and appearance are not those of a stereotypical conductor. With his slight, lanky build, dressed in a billowy black, high-necked top and tailored black trousers, he looked like Harlequin come to life, and at energetic points in the performance seemed about to take flight. He took absolutely beautiful dynamic risks, and marked this performance by contrasts while never losing sight of the composition’s overall architecture. The introduction was kept extremely quiet, and beautiful intimacy marked the princesses' Khorovod, the various dances charmed and enticed, and the finale was satisfyingly brassy and full-bodied. Bravo as well to the principals – the oboe was a gorgeous standout, but impressive woodwind and brass work throughout made this a very convincing performance.

The only bothersome aspect of an otherwise fascinating evening involved having two intervals in a concert comprised of merely 70 minutes of music. That aside, it was a thrilling evening of music and performers full of passion, clarity and vision.