Any ranking of the world’s most respected pianists has to include Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin, who hail from Norway and Canada respectively. Since winning the $300,000 Gilmore Artist Award in 1998, Andsnes, 47, has enjoyed a stellar career that includes six prestigious Gramophone Awards. An intrepid interpreter with an exceptionally wide-ranging repertory, Hamelin, 55, has made some 70 recordings for the well-respected Hyperion label.
A chance to hear either of them in concert is always welcome, but on April 30, the SCP Piano Series offers the unprecedented opportunity to experience them together in a program of two-piano works, including an arrangement of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. “It’s a wonderful privilege,” Hamelin said from his home just outside Boston. “It’s a terrific opportunity to team up with someone I really like.”
Most piano duos tend to be made up of fixed partners, like the sisters Katia and Marielle Labèque. Because of their intense schedules and the particular challenges of duo performances, soloists rarely team up for such events. Indeed, Andsnes and Hamelin historically have almost never participated in duos. But in 2008, Andsnes asked Hamelin to take part in a chamber-music festival in Risør, Norway, of which the former served as co-artistic director for nearly two decades. “I knew of some of his many recordings,” Andsnes said from his home in Norway, “and I’ve been extremely impressed with everything he has done.”
Andsnes wanted to take advantage of the Canadian pianist’s expansive repertory, and among other selections, Hamelin gave a “spectacular performance” of Charles Ives’ infrequently heard Piano Sonata No. 2 (Concord, Mass., 1840-60). In addition, Hamelin suggested that the two pianists play The Rite of Spring. “He wasn’t familiar with the arrangement,” Hamelin said of his counterpart, “but he took to it magnificently.” The two have performed the piece 10 or 12 times since, including a concert as part of a residency that Andsnes had at the Berlin Philharmonic.
Duo piano presents technical hurdles, that are different than, say, accompanying a violinist or taking part with a violinist and cellist in a piano trio, especially the rigorous synchronicity it requires. “When you have two pianos with two very precise attacks, if you are not absolutely together, it’s going to stick out like a sore thumb, so you really, really have to be attuned to each other,” Hamelin said.
Added Andsnes: “Most pianists are a little bit afraid of this because it feels vulnerable when it comes to pianists having different touches. It’s an instrument of such precision, because of the verticality, the nature of the instrument, the striking of the strings. Simply to the feel the timing, the rhythm together, can be very challenging.”
Because of these challenges, finding the right keyboard partner is crucial. Hamelin admits that he didn’t know how it would work out the first time he paired with Andsnes. “But it happened to be a really wonderful musical fit, which I was very happy about because I’ve always liked very much Leif Ove as a musician,” Hamelin said. “But getting to know him as a person was a huge plus, because on a human level, he is just so wonderful to be with.”
Andsnes agreed, saying the felt a strong rapport with Hamelin from the beginning. “I find it’s so easy to follow what he is doing,” Andsnes said. “In The Rite of Spring, there are certain transitions where if he shows a sign with his eyes or his head, it’s just extremely clear like his piano playing is so clear. I’ve found it very easy to understand his timing and what he is doing.”
The duo’s Chicago recital is part of a 13-concert tour that began in late March in Europe and continues with six stops in the United States, including New York’s Carnegie Hall on April 28. “We should know the pieces by then,” Andsnes said with a laugh. In between, the two took time out to record The Rite of Spring for an album on the Hyperion label. “After having done it so often, we thought it would be a shame if that didn’t go on record,” Hamelin said. Simon Ferry, who heads Hyperion Records agreed, and they decided to fill out the rest of the recording with other works by Stravinsky, including the composer’s Concerto for Two Pianos, which also will be on the duo’s Chicago program.
Stravinsky first published the score of The Rite of Spring in 1913 as a four-hand arrangement on one piano, a version that the composer once played with Claude Debussy at a private party at the home of Louis Laloy. The music critic recounted the event in his memoirs:
“Debussy agreed to play the bass. Stravinsky asked if he could take his collar off. His sight was not improved by his glasses, and pointing his nose to the keyboard and sometimes humming a part that had been omitted from the arrangement, he led into a welter of sound the supple, agile hands of his friend. Debussy followed without a hitch and seemed to make light of the difficulty. When they had finished there was no question of embracing, nor even of compliments. We were dumbfounded, overwhelmed by this hurricane which had come from the depths of the ages and which had taken life by the roots.”
This four-hand arrangement remained largely unknown until 1967 when Michael Tilson Thomas (now the music director of the San Francisco Symphony) and Ralph Grierson performed it with Stravinsky’s blessing and later made the first recording. Hamelin recalls hearing their performance as a child after his father bought the album. This version has since become a favorite with duo-piano teams. “Who wouldn’t want a piece like that under their fingers?” Hamelin said. “It’s quite a thrill. Rhythmically, it’s so vital and exciting. Of course, you can’t reproduce all the intricacies of the [orchestral] score and some [musical] lines are missing, but it’s actually fun to restore some of these lines.”
Andsnes and Hamelin have chosen to perform the work on two pianos, and they have added some of the passages that can be heard in the orchestral version but were missing in Stravinsky’s original four-hand piano arrangement. “It’s fun to try that, and we’ve done a few,” Hamelin said.
It is impossible, Andsnes said, to imitate the colors of the orchestral version, because they are so different. But in the two-piano version, listeners can really hear the inner workings, the “skeleton” of the piece, and its rhythms and harmonies are more clearly delineated. “For people who know the orchestral version very well and they hear it on two pianos,” he said, “they get a fresh look into the piece. It becomes so transparent how the composition is built, its intrinsic workmanship. It’s very fascinating.”
The concert will open with Mozart’s Larghetto and Allegro in E-flat Major for Two Pianos, which was left incomplete at the composer’s death and was reconstructed in this version by Paul Badura-Skoda. According to Hamelin, it was Andsnes’ idea to start with that piece, because he thought it might provide a comfortable way for audiences to ease into the program and serve as a Classical-era counterbalance to the 20th-century selections on the rest of the program. “We thought the Mozart would be perfect,” Hamelin said. “It’s not very long and it’s perhaps not one of Mozart’s best but it’s perfectly wonderful.”
Rounding out the program is Debussy’s En blanc et noir, which was part of the two pianists’ concert in Berlin. Written during World War I, the work has a slow second movement that depicts a battle scene with some of the most dissonant music the composer ever wrote. Helping to tie this work to the rest of the program, the playful final movement is dedicated to Stravinksy and includes a quote from the composer’s celebrated ballet The Firebird. “It’s one of Debussy’s last pieces,” Andsnes said. “I just find it so fascinating with its colors.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.