Andsnes and Hamelin dazzling in two piano recital

Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
Marc-André Hamelin, piano
Symphony Center
Chicago, IL
April 30, 2017

Mozart: Larghetto and Allegro in E-flat Major for Two Pianos
Stravinsky: Concerto for Two Pianos
Debussy: En blanc et noir
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Encores:
Stravinsky: Madrid for Two Pianos from Four Studies for Orchestra (transc. Soulima Stravinsky)
Stravinsky: Circus Polka for Two Pianos (transc. Babin)
Stravinsky: Tango for Two Pianos (transc. Babin)

It is a rare opportunity indeed to see not one, but two of the world’s leading concert pianists on stage together.  This was fortunately the case Sunday afternoon, when Marc-André Hamelin and Leif Ove Andsnes stopped at Symphony Center as part of a 13-city tour of a bracing program that explored music for two pianos.  Their partnership goes back a decade when they performed the two piano version of The Rite of Spring at the Risør Chamber Music Festival, where Andsnes served as artistic director.  Not three weeks prior to the Chicago performance, the pair finally recorded the piece for Hyperion along with additional works of Stravinsky for the same medium also featured in the recital, and one is grateful this inspired collaboration has been preserved on disc given the pair’s absolutely electric chemistry.

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Andsnes and Hamelin presenting the same program at Carnegie Hall, two days prior to their Symphony Center appearance, photo credit Chris Lee
The program opened unassumingly with Mozart’s Larghetto and Allegro in E flat major, with Andsnes taking the primo part in the whole of the first half.  The Larghetto was graceful but not without shades of melancholy, as in the best of the Mozart’s slow movements.  Cast in sonata form, the Allegro remained unfinished at the time of the composer’s death, and was presented in a completed version by Paul Badura-Skoda.  The sprightly main theme evidenced the duo’s rapport from the start, in what was an energetic warmup for all that was to follow.

Stravinsky’s Concerto for Two Pianos is a substantial if neglected work from his neoclassical period, written for him and his son Soulima to play together, and one couldn’t have asked for better advocates in Andsnes and Hamelin.  The first movement was of bold, sweeping gestures, delivered with a knife-edged acerbity.  The delicate ornamentation in the ensuing “Notturno” gave it a mysterious charm, while contrasting sections were more march-like.  Spiky dissonances characterized much of the “Quattro variazioni”, while the finale opened with a brief but declamatory prelude to set up an intricate fugue.  The theme of the preceding variations was not heard until it was presented as the subject of the fugue – the composer had originally intended for the last two movements to be in reverse, but settled on the present ordering to give the work a more forceful ending.  And a forceful ending it certainly had!

Written in 1915, Debussy’s En blanc et noir is very much a product of the First World War.  The angular themes of the opening movement made for a striking visual effect with Andsnes and Hamelin perfectly in sync as a mirror image of each other.  The somberness of wartime was particularly apparent in the central movement, which made dissonant allusions to the Lutheran chorale “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” to depict the German enemy.  The final movement – which, perhaps significantly, was dedicated to Stravinsky – was fleet and mercurial, a stark departure in its apparent playfulness.

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has been heard on the same stage innumerable times from the Chicago Symphony, but hearing it on two pianos was a refreshing and altogether different experience.  It was in this version that the seminal work was first heard – an early performance involved the composer with Debussy: what a sight that must have been.  The work is actually carefully written such that it can be performed on one piano, four hands, but the decision to split it across two pianos was a wise one, not just for obvious logistical concerns, but the resonance of two instruments along with two separate sets of pedals allowed for a much greater range of orchestral effect.

Hamelin commanded the primo from here to the end of the program, opening with the famous bassoon line.  In spite of Hamelin’s attention to nuance, what’s striking in the bassoon sounded admittedly pedestrian on the piano.  This was quickly allayed, however, as “The Augers of Spring” built to electrifying orchestral sonority and power.  Despite the orchestral score not calling for piano (as Petrushka does, and quite prominently), the work sounded very natural pianistically.  The memorable performance was by and large a steel-fingered assault with hurricane-like intensity, continuing unmitigated through the final, crashing flourish.

A rousing, well-deserved ovation brought the pair back for three encores, all by Stravinsky.  “Madrid” appropriately had an irresistible Spanish tinge, with a hint of the jota.  The “Circus Polka” (“we’ve prepared all these lovely things for you”, noted Hamelin in his introduction to the delight of the audience) was Stravinsky at his wittiest, replete with bitonalities (and perhaps an inspiration for Hamelin’s own “Circus Galop”).  Lastly, the “Tango” was sultry, yet not without the composer’s unmistakable stamp.  Thanks are due to both for being on hand for an engaging Q&A session following the concert, and their chemistry there was just as palpable as it was on stage.

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Leif Ove Andsnes, James Fahey (Director of Programming, Symphony Center Presents), and Marc-André Hamelin during the post-concert Q&A
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Hamelin explores the piano sonata in commanding Cleveland recital

Marc-André Hamelin, piano
Gartner Auditorium
Cleveland Museum of Art
Cleveland, OH
March 21, 2017

Haydn: Piano Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI:48
Feinberg: Piano Sonata No. 1 in A major, Op. 1
Feinberg: Piano Sonata No. 2 in A minor, Op. 2
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, Appassionata
Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 7, Op. 64, Messe blanche
Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35

Encore:
Debussy: Reflets dans l’eau, No. 1 from Images, Book I

Marc-André Hamelin has built much of his reputation on fearless exploration of the byways of the piano repertoire, and his recital at the Cleveland Museum of Art – presented by the Cleveland International Piano Competition – was no exception, juxtaposing the familiar with the obscure.  All the works on the program bore the title “piano sonata”, although none adhered very closely to the standard model of the form, a true testament to the medium’s protean potential.  Hamelin delivered the program with his signature peerless technique, yet this was far from an evening of vapid virtuosity, but one of probing artistic discovery.

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Marc-André Hamelin, photo credit Rachel Papo
The survey of piano sonatas appropriately began with Haydn, in the two movement C major sonata, Hob. XVI:48.  Given Hamelin’s association with the fingerbusting works of the 19th– and 20th-century, Hamelin and Haydn might sound like an unnatural fit, but as he as shown in his extensive recordings of the composer’s sonatas for Hyperion, it’s an inspired coupling to be sure.  From the onset, the performance was marked by deftly nuanced articulation and crisp ornamentation.  There were sporadic moments when matters felt a bit heavy-handed which lesser pedaling perhaps could have ameliorated, but overall this was a study in precision, replete with minor key excursions that foreshadowed Beethoven, and the all too brief finale exuded joie de vivre.

Certified rarities followed, the first two piano sonatas of the Russian composer and pianist Samuil Feinberg.  His cycle of twelve piano sonatas is a remarkable achievement, unjustly neglected, and Hamelin is rumored to be recording them.  These two sonatas, in A major and minor respectively, were of a similar aesthetic, the consecutive opuses hardly demonstrating Feinberg’s eventual compositional developments (both dating from 1915; the final sonata dates from 1962), yet Hamelin presented them with a singular intensity and an unflinching commitment to this little-known music.

The First Sonata was of a brooding Romanticism, while the dense textures would have sounded murky in lesser hands, Hamelin achieved a lucid clarity of voices, and delineated a clear trajectory in spite of the composer’s tendency to meander.  A touchingly lyrical melody characterized the Second Sonata, and a highpoint came in its dramatically cascading climax.

Beethoven’s mighty Appassionata is a recent addition to Hamelin’s concert repertoire; I’ve been eager to hear his take on this durable work, and he certainly didn’t disappoint.  The opening movement built to massive climaxes that carefully avoided bombast.  There was much-needed repose in the slow movement, enhanced by the adroitly voiced chordal melody, while the finale had an unrelenting nervous energy in its breathless race to the tragic end, given at a dangerously brisk tempo.

One of Hamelin’s first recordings of his long and fruitful association with Hyperion was of the complete Scriabin piano sonatas; the arresting Seventh Sonata is a work that has been in his fingers for a very long time.  Explosive and mercurial, the sonata proceeded with inevitability towards the trilling, mystical ending, shrouded in enigma.

Chopin’s B-flat minor sonata concluded the program, and in the passionate first movement Hamelin drew out a fluid melody over an undulating accompaniment.  He eschewed the repeat of the exposition, although in this case I would suggest the repeat is a wise interpretative choice given the movement’s proportions.  There was a menacing determination in the scherzo, while its middle section was indulgent in sumptuous melody, quintessentially Chopinesque.

No empty sentimentality was to be had in the tragic heights of the famous funeral march, and Hamelin had a velvet touch in the contrasting lyrical section.  His utter and absolute command of the keyboard was on full display in the moto perpetuum finale, yet phrases were keenly shaped to make the sonata’s revolutionary ending more than mere volleys of notes.

Hamelin obliged the modest but enthusiastic audience with an encore in Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau, shimmering and liquescent.