Andsnes and Hamelin Just Miss that Crucial Spark as a Duo

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Stravinsky, Debussy: Leif Ove Andsnes, Marc-André Hamelin (pianos). Wigmore Hall, London, 30.3.2017. (CC)

Mozart – Larghetto and Allegro in E flat, K. deest (completed Badura-Skoda)

Stravinsky – Concerto for Two Pianos; The Rite of Spring (two-piano version)

Debussy – En blanc et noir

Part of a US and European tour, this concert found these two major talents together in a somewhat top-heavy programme. The manuscript of Mozart’s Larghetto and Allegro was found in the then-Czechoslovakia but only extends some way past the Larghetto (which is all-Mozart). The primo part makes it as far as the exposition double-bar intact; the secondo makes it there too but with gaps. Thereafter it is the work of the musicologist completing the work, in this case Paul Badura-Skoda (Franz Beyer and Robert Levin have also provided fleshings-out). Tight ensemble, bold colours and a possible amount of over-projection at the opening made this something of a mixed bag; neither did Badura-Skoda’s completion give us the feeling we were in the presence of a neglected masterwork.

The double helping of Stravinsky reflects the fact that Andsnes and Hamelin have been recording Stravinsky two-piano music for Hyperion (no surprise, then, that both encores were by Stravinsky: the Tango and the Circus Polka, both characterful). The scales of the first movement of the Concerto for Two Pianos (1932-5) seemed a nice link to those of the Mozart. Nicely helter-skelter in that movement, it was followed by a beautifully sculpted Notturno and a well drawn set of variations. The finale, Preludio e fuga, displayed some lovely pecking staccato from the pianists.

Debussy’s En blanc et noir is an elusive late work from 1915. It was nice to hear the players using a completely different sound from the Stravinsky: the opening was brightly coloured, the central Lent, sombre seemed to open out organically while the finale (Scherzando) was beautifully together. And yet, there seemed to be a final element missing, something that was needed to escalate this performance from the merely very good indeed. Ii was interesting that both players play it hyper-cool on stage, too, very still; isolated to a degree. It was just that final connection between them that was missing, that spark to elevate the music-making to the truly special.

Andsnes performed the two-piano version of The Rite of Spring for the first time in 2009, also with Hamelin. So there is history. Plenty of competition here: Bavouzet and Guy on Chandos, for example (see my review of their 2015 Wigmore performance here), and the spectacular new recording by the Labèque sisters on DG, making one wonder how Andsnes’ and Hamelin’s recording will hold up. What marked out the Andsnes/Hamelin performance here was the beauty of the slower portions of the work; the opening of the second part was really sensuous. If the energy of the faster sections had had more of the elemental about it the performance might have swept the board, given the evident care that had gone into the preparation. As it was, this was an object lesson in piano playing (two rock-steady techniques) that failed to transport us to the raw Paganist world Stravinsky so epoch-makingly painted.

Colin Clarke

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