A top heavy programme marred Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin's two piano recital at Wigmore Hall, though it had its moments of high inspiration. The problem in the first half of the programme was that there seemed too much to take in. The juxtaposition of strongly characterised works by Stravinsky and Debussy proved to be too intense, making it hard to focus on either.

Leif Ove Andsnes © Özgur Albayrak
Leif Ove Andsnes
© Özgur Albayrak

The concert kicked off, however, with a rarity by Mozart. The Larghetto and Allegro in E flat was composed in 1781 and not finished. The manuscript was found in the 1950s in a library in Czechoslovakia. Mozart had completed the exposition and started the development section. This performance used a completed edition by Paul Badura-Skoda that was not very convincing. The development section completion was unidiomatic, sounding more like Bruckner, and in the recapitulation the modulation adjustments stuck out like a sore thumb. The pianists were not fully warmed up and there were a few messy passages.

Moving from the classical to the neoclassical, the Concerto for two pianos by Stravinsky wasn’t the smooth transition that perhaps was envisaged. This Concerto is difficult to bring off. Some of Stravinsky’s works from the early 1930s can suffer from a certain dryness and lack of thematic inspiration, requiring more work by the listener to fully appreciate them. Certainly this work falls into that category and the performance here lacked some definition and direction. The different approaches of the two soloists, with Andsnes more romantic and Hamelin focusing more on technical perfection, seemed to be at odds with each other. Only in the first movement Con moto, did they seem to get to the heart of the matter.

The programme continued with a performance of one of the most important and elusive works for piano duo, Debussy’s En blanc et noir from 1915. Occupying a very different world from the Stravinsky, it took the ear some time to adjust to its mysterious half lights. The performance again wasn’t always ideal, however, it started well, with the soloists finding an ideal legato from the outset and character in the various disturbing excursions. The slow middle section was less successful, with the complex sombre atmosphere not fully realised. Likewise the final Scherzando didn’t find the balance of the airy lightness and melancholy. A disappointing interpretation of a work of emotional complexity and power.

Marc-André Hamelin © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Marc-André Hamelin
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

The same couldn’t be said of Hamelin and Andsnes’ brilliant performance of The Rite of Spring. Composed as an elaborate sketch, this two piano version reveals important insights into the mechanics of the work. In its orchestral clothing the ballet seems miraculously conceived and its violent glamour has made it one of the most performed of all 20th-century scores. Reduced to the bare bones of its melody, harmony and rhythm, it becomes something more human, but also more unique and ground-breaking. After the doubts raised by the performance of the concerto, this blazing interpretation of this classic masterpiece brought to mind Boulez’s view that everything Stravinsky produced after the ‘Russian’ period was of lesser importance.

Andsnes and Hamelin were successful here in putting across a world that is less violent than we are used to. The beautiful quiet passages that open both sections of the work stand out in the memory, with the interplay between the soloists at its most intimate. The explosions into the harshly rhythmic sections were impressive and the percussive sound of the pianos effortlessly projected the drama and brutality of the scenario, as well as its dance origins. The climaxes at the end of both sections built up explosively, with the soloists wise in holding back that last ounce of power for these moments. This performance certainly lived up to the high expectations of the partnership of these two major soloists and will remain long in the mind.