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And Vive la différence!

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
04/28/2017 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Larghetto and Allegro, KV Deest
Igor Stravinsky: Concerto for Two Pianos – Le Sacre du printemps (arranged by the composer for piano four hands/re-arranged for two pianos by the artists)
Claude Debussy: En blanc et noir

Leif Ove Andsnes, Marc-André Hamelin (Pianists)

L. O. Andsnes/M.-A. Hamelin

What made last night special was not a duo-piano team. For more than a century, duo-pianists have been a popular staple, playing popular music from Schubert to Rachmaninoff. Add to this, some kind of genetic miracle is in the air, and dozens of twin prodigies make a good living with some good playing.

What made the team of Canadian Marc-André Hamelin and Leif Ove Andsnes so special is a) they are amongst the most prominent solo pianists in the world; and b) they are amongst the most adventurous soloists.

When the name Andsnes pops up on a program, you know that he will be paired with an avant-garde string quartet, or a devilish orchestral ensemble or he will be premiering music never heard before, as well as powerful classic playing. And always, the performance is first-class.

Marc-André Hamelin is sometimes erratic (I heard him in the Dvorák Concerto, where he played the notes by rote, took a bow and disappeared), but his repertoire is boundless, endless, his delving into the 19th Century and his own jocular compositions are usually stunning.

So what happens when the two get together? One expected to use the word fireworks, but that won’t do. Andsnes and Hamelin don’t have a genetic synchronicity, they have a quantum physical conception. Boring remarks on their “togetherness” were superseded by their singularity as two artists producing so many different colors, mixing textures from so many different parts of the stage.

Mind you, a major citation must go to Carnegie Hall. I can’t imagine any other large venue in Manhattan where the two Steinways, placed nose to nose, could generate such a clarity of varied sounds. That was obvious, yes, in the one familiar work, Stravinsky’s Sacre, where we knew what to expect in the fierce orchestral tapestry. But in the rare Stravinsky Two-Piano Concerto, one not only sensed but one heard that two different artists were on fire.

The recital was broadcast on WQXR, but I sympathized with listeners who perhaps couldn’t feel this Venit digitos e pluribus unum–out of many fingers comes one–quality. Yet from the beginning, a reconstruction by Paul Badura-Skoda of a short Mozart piece, one was aware that this wasn’t a single perfect organism. It was two dissimilar artists forming an original musical conception.

In fact, even during the few meditative, stolid sections, one felt an innate electricity, of two players who were so confident of each others’ partner that they could go ahead and do what they wanted to do.

With other two-piano teams, one could feel–like Samuel Johnson’s dog standing on two legs–that the wonder was not how he does it, but that it is done at all. Here the feat (and the hands) were tools to produce some great music.

Starting with Mozart. With a work which was so incidental that it was never included in his catalogue. (Thus the numbering “KV Deest”, which I had never seen before.) Still, this was obviously a late piece, for the short slow introduction was somber, highly personal. But how would the Allegro sound with two pianos in this hall? Mr. Andsnes on first piano, Mr. Hamelin on second piano, played with an innate modesty, a feeling that the complex runs were so easily manipulated that they could hide their emotions for a dash of aplomb.

The Stravinsky Two Piano Concerto was written out of practicality. Stravinsky father and son were on a recital tour. And they might be going somewhere without an orchestra.!! No problem, thinks Igor, I’ll do a concerto without an orchestra.

This piece, written between the “Russian” period and his later impersonal works, is a delight. Stravinsky himself loved it, and for good reason. It is complex, filled with devilish virtuosity–but that is nothing for this team.

Consequently, we had a propulsion in the first movement (expected), and clarity, utter singular beauty in the nocturne. Prokofiev once made an unfair statement that Stravinsky was “Bach with all the wrong notes.” Yet here, one did feel that transparent, unhurried gossamer-spun counterpoint. The variations were fine, but in the final fugue, this team was at its height.

Without thinking of the other, each pianist ran through the movement, the sounds resonating, Hamelin perhaps more ardent, pressing down that pedal, Andsnes not more temperate but more lyrical, and both creating a dynamic work.

Now came Debussy’s En blanc et noir, one of his last works, an elegy for a friend (possibly a Protestant friend, since the Lutheran hymn was quoted), a piece on the horrors of war (gunfire in the background) and a piece which was supremely personal.

Debussy once said that a piano should be played as if it had no hammers. But one doubts whether he would repeat that for En blanc et noir. It needed great expression, changes of color, surprising interpolations. And while I have not heard this played before by others, these two pianists had the individual personalities to create that so tremendous feeling.

The Sacre cannot be explained here, except that I will skip any concerts with a transcription of dances for single piano. That is, of course Johnson’s two-legged dog. The work could not be duplicated on any number of pianos, but it would have been possible in the mind to replace the piano keys with the instruments.

That was inevitable at the beginning. (“Gee, Mr. Hamelin’s notes sound like a bassoon”), but within seconds, our conscious minds ignored the obvious and turned to the utter energy, the fierceness, the volcanic eruption of the music through their hands.

Nor was it worthwhile distinguishing who was doing what. They were both artists in their own–very different –bodies, and this difference was what gave it such energy.

Encores? More Stravinsky, including Madrid and the Circus Polka. And finally here, we heard hints of what lesser piano teams might play. The composer swung in, for no particular reason some Schubert, the Military March. Nice to hear it for a few seconds. But then it was back to that eccentric played by two artists running in their own way down erratic punishing pathways.

Harry Rolnick



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