Master pianists combine in a thrilling two-piano Wigmore Hall recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Adams, Schumann, Debussy, and Stravinsky: Leif Ove Andsnes, Marc-André Hamelin (pianos). Wigmore Hall, London, 30.5.2022. (MB)

Marc-André Hamelin (left) and Leif Ove Andsnes (c) Chris Lee

John Adams – Hallelujah Junction
Schumann (arr. Debussy) – Six Studies in Canonic Form, Op.56
Debussy – En blanc et noir
Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring 

Two-piano recitals look, feel, and are very different from piano-duet recitals. Sometimes we have a mixture, but even then, performances look and sound very different, for obvious logistical reasons. Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin offered four (five, if one counts the encore) works for two pianos, ultimately taking us to the very limits — sometimes, it seemed, beyond — of what is possible, even with two instruments and four hands, in The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky’s arrangement is actually for piano duet, but Andsnes and Hamelin reinstate some of the lines necessarily missing, at times giving a full orchestra a run for its money. A deservedly well attended, well appreciated concert heated up an otherwise dismal, late May evening. Maybe the gods were exacting revenge for a strange spring rite of unwitting lèse-majesté at Stonehenge.

First, though, was neither Neolithic Wiltshire nor the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, but Hallelujah Junction, a truck stop on the border between California and Nevada. I am afraid John Adams’s piece does nothing for me. I could find nothing to signal compositional achievement beyond that of a generic, mid-1990s Channel 4 soundtrack, mixed with all-too-obvious ‘Americana’. As for the sentimental pseudo-Romantic harmonies of the central section, I presumed they were ‘ironic’, though perhaps not. The performance, though, was masterly, rhythmic tests passed with flying colours, not least in the final section in which the two pianists finally came into sync with one another, only to fall out again, ‘like a great malfunctioning mechanical player piano’, to quote Edward Bhesania’s evocative note. That I found diverting enough; the rest was evidently admired by most in the audience and enjoyed by both players.

Adams over, I could breathe a sigh of relief and had no reservations whatsoever. Debussy’s 1891 arrangement for two pianos of Schumann’s Studies in Canonic form for pedal piano rarely disappoints, but here sheer ‘naturalness’ of musical response was second to none. Bach rightly emerged as the guiding spirit of the first, which paradoxically had one hear all that is not Bach all the more acutely. A melting performance, utterly pianistic, would surely have delighted Schumann and Debussy equally; Bach too, no doubt. From this ‘prelude’, greater pathos followed in the second study, its harmonic riches revealed with wisdom and ese. A winningly impetuous third study, harking back to the wide-eyed Romanticism of Schumann’s ‘Year of Song’ five years previously, filled one’s stomach with the loveliest of butterflies. Limpid, heartfelt, and noble in response, the fourth showed, in the building and subsiding of its more darkly involved central section, the truest virtues of such antiphonal performance. The fifth was resolute in a nicely post-Schubertian way, whilst the concluding study proved both developmental and summative: once more, a fine tribute to Bach.

Debussy’s own En blanc et noir opened as if paying brief homage to Schumann, then pressed on beyond. Its first movement offered clarity, direction, pianistic abandon and control, in as finely complementary duo playing as one could imagine — and then some. Tragedy penetrated necessary abstraction in the second movement, dedicated ‘au Lieutenant Jacques Charlot tué à l’ennemi en 1915, le 3 mars’. Angels (la vielle France) and demons (war, Ein’ feste Burg) did battle, albeit with due ambiguity. This is music, not a tract, and so it sounded here. Anger, though, was barely suppressed, and why should it be? The scherzando, dedicated to Stravinsky, proved more elusive still, all the more so for resting on a rock-solid rhythmic base, above and sometimes beneath which passes all manner of musical entanglements.

Debussy and Stravinsky gave a celebrated private performance of The Rite in the composer’s duet version. What it would have been to have heard that, though it is difficult to imagine it surpassing what we heard from Hamelin and Andsnes. Whenever one hears a good performance of the piano version, it is striking just how readily the opening bassoon lines, apparently so tied to their timbre, transfer. Who knows what wizardry is involved therein, but it was close to definitively unleashed on this occasion. More flexible at times than is possible (perhaps desirable) for orchestra, the performance lacked nothing in rhythmic solidity where it counted, its primitivism shockingly immanent. So too was clarity that enabled one to hear me manner of things I had never imagined were there, or so I fancied. Passages sounded closer to Petrushka than usual, surely in part on account of the medium. Others emerged hieratic enough to give Boulez a run for his money. Virtuosity took us to its limits and extended them. Yet for all the pounding, there was much delicacy too, and above all melody, which must lie at the heart (yes, the heart) of any Rite. What emerged more strongly than in any performance I can recall was the sheer tragic impulse of the second part, rooted harmonically, the radicalism of Stravinsky’s cellular organisation likewise becoming all the clearer as it progressed. Hamelin and Andsnes made the Rite strange again whilst remaining true to it: surely the ultimate goal of any performance worth our time.

As an encore, we heard a tango composed by Hamelin himself, perfectly conceived for and realised on two pianos. Catchy and playful, it engaged in Ravel’s trick of having one ask what might lie beneath the beguiling, glittering surface, before immediately turning the joke on us by pointing out the silliness of the question.

Mark Berry

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