Asko|Schönberg, ensemble in residence of Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ, played the Amsterdam première of A Dog’s Life by Frederic Rzewski to great acclaim from a dishearteningly small audience. Fortunately the concert was broadcast live on Radio 4. Though the American composer is an achieved pianist, A Dog’s Life is but his second piano concerto, following on the heels of his first, which he premiered himself at the BBC Proms in 2013. The new piece was commissioned by TivoliVredenburg and composed for Asko|Schönberg and the Belgian pianist Daan Vandewalle, who also performed the world première on 4 March in De Bijloke in Ghent.

The ever playful Rzewski gave all three parts ‘doggy’ titles, starting with “Prelude: Endless War”, followed by “25 Scents” and ending with “Air Dogs”. He was inspired by Kafka’s story Forschungen eines Hundes, in which a philosophical dog poses questions on the behaviour of his ilk. He distinguishes several varieties, such as music dogs, sporting dogs and air dogs (lap dogs), which all found their way into Rzewski’s piece.

A Dog’s Life opens with evocative rustlings from a range of percussion instruments, the players placed around the ensemble. After a climax and a return to the quiet rumblings, three of them take their seats and pick up their regular instruments – a theatrical element that draws a first smile from the audience.

Rzewski then catapults us on a tour de force in which pianist and ensemble vie for attention. The pianist – a remarkably concentrated Daan Vandewalle – often plays unaccompanied, doling out virtuoso solos ranging from impressionist tinklings to brutish rhythms, monolithic chords, classical-romantic pastiche and jazzy improvisations. At other times the pianist is silent while the ensemble takes the lead, offering beautiful classical melodies in the strings, fugato chorales of the brass and disconcertingly aggressive percussion.

The pushing and pulling between soloist and ensemble humorously illustrates the “endless war” between master and dog. As in everyday life, one wonders: is the man walking the dog, or is the dog walking the man? Rzewski further explores this theme in “25 Scents”, in which dazzlingly quick interactions between ensemble and pianist take on cartoonesque proportions. In the concluding “Air Dogs”, dog and man seem to be more in concord: the wind players take their cue from the pianist and provide sustained echoes of his pitches. In the end the musicians intone long held whistled notes, fading away over the soothing sounds of a rainpipe.

Though A Dog’s Life bristles with life and energy, the thrill wears off gradually, because the repeated pauses become somewhat predictable. If Rzewski pares down his concerto to the promised 20 instead of the actual 30 minutes, it would be even more convincing.

After the interval Hans Zender’s 33 Veränderungen über 33 Veränderungen, inspired by Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations was a disappointment. It can’t compete with his ‘composed interpretation’ of Schubert’s Winterreise. Though the German composer writes beautiful solos for instruments such as accordion and muted trumpet, and offers a moving duet between alto flute and cor anglais, the form of the piece is too hybrid. Sometimes we hear pure Beethoven, as in a passage played by a piano backstage, but more often we’re suffused in thick textures of ‘modernist’ material, the ‘why’ of which is not always obvious.

The Asko|Schönberg, supplemented by a few students from the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, was led with a secure hand through the two complicated scores by Peter Rundel. In spite of this, not all the entries were spot on, nor was the intonation always impeccable. Surely these flaws will be ironed out in the performances in TivoliVredenburg Utrecht tonight and De Doelen Rotterdam tomorrow.

You can see a video of Rzewski talking with Daan Vandewalle about A Dog's Life here