Mozart: Larghetto and Allegro for Two Pianos (Completed by Paul Badura-Skoda)
Stravinsky: Concerto for Two Pianos
Debussy: En blanc et noir
Stravinsky: Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) for Two Pianos
Coming back to reality after two weeks of a shamelessly hedonistic lifestyle, which consisted primarily in gorging myself on top-quality foods, drinks, sightseeing, music, not to mention a staggering amount of oxygen and sunshine, occasionally accompanied by forceful gusts of mistral, cannot but be challenging. In my case, however, the unavoidable post-vacation blues was going to be significantly attenuated by an amazing musical weekend that started with a downright unusual but incredibly compelling recital on Friday evening at Carnegie Hall.
That's where two of the world’s most acclaimed pianists from the North, Norwegian Leif Ove Andsnes and Canadian Marc-André Hamelin, were going to join their mighty virtuosic forces and treat the large audience filling up the Stern Auditorium and listening on WQXR to the two piano performance of an eclectic set of compositions by elegant Austrian classicist Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, refined French impressionist Claude Debussy and fierce Russian rule-breaker Igor Stravinsky.
So capricious weather, inescapable chores, nagging jetlag, seasonal allergies and nascent cold (Public service announcement: Starting right now, do not leave home without a four-ply cashmere sweater. The AC and its glacial temperatures are back!) be damned. I was going to be there and enjoy every minute of it.
And here they were, inconspicuous-looking and formidably talented, ready to work their ways through an ambitious program. It all started with Mozart's short Larghetto and Allegro for Two Pianos, which the composer never finished. As deftly completed by Austrian pianist Paul Badura-Skoda and superbly performed by Andsnes and Hamelin, this rarity was a light-hearted and smart classical opener before we plunged in the 20th century.
The first Stravinsky piece of the evening, the Concerto for Two Pianos, had been written by the composer for his son so that they could play it together, which they did most notably on a Pleyel piano with two keyboards for the work's premiere at Paris' Salle Gaveau in 1935. On Friday night at Carnegie Hall, Andsnes and Hamelin had a wonderful time – and so did we – navigating the ever-changing score, which effortlessly switched from energetic rhythms to delicate lyricism, with unexpected quirks springing out here and there.
Despite its descriptive title, Debussy's En blanc et noir is not only about white and black, but also about all the infinite nuances to be found in between those two extremes. And there were a lot of them on Friday, the performance starting with carefree vivacity before moving on to a highly contrasted somber palette to commemorate a friend's death on the battlefield. Last but not least, the Scherzando ended with an unrestrained explosion of colors and fun.
As much as those three numbers had been interesting and enjoyable, Stravinsky's magnificently ground-breaking Sacre du printemps (AKA The Rite of Spring) was still to come. And when it came, we were in for over half an hour of astonishing piano playing. I had heard a four-hand version of it at Bargemusic a couple of years ago and had remained in awe at how well it had worked out. On Friday night at Carnegie Hall, I was thrilled to be in for another exciting round of it.
The two musicians having switched sides, Hamelin did the honors and took over the opening solo bassoon part , still unmistakably recognizable on the piano, an intriguing introduction to an all-out blazing Rite of Spring. A it was, the inevitable loss in colors and textures was not mourned for long because the potential drawback in fact highlighted the wild rhythms and untamed mood of the masterpiece, the famous staccatos savagely resounding in all their pagan splendor.
Originally written and played as a work-in-progress to trusted friends only, the two piano version was never meant to stand on its own in concert halls. What a loss that would have been! The pared down work allows for a closer look at the brilliant complexity and boldly innovative structure of the final piece as well as a deep appreciation for the virtuosic skills involved. Needless to say those skills were in full display on Friday as the two keyboard masters successfully completed their remarkable tour de force in perfect harmony.
No offense to Mozart or Debussy, but Stravinsky has clearly been on the duo's minds lately, quite possibly because they have been recording his works for two pianos we have been hearing. In any case, the three (Yes! Three!) encores were all irresistible miniatures of his for two pianos: "Madrid", "Circus Polka" and "Tango". All in all, it had been a long and eventful evening for me, and I did enjoy every minute of it.