Whatever the repertoire, an evening listening to two formidable pianists is an opportunity not to missed, especially two virtuosi who are internationally revered. And how well-matched in tone and technique was this Canadian–Norwegian partnership, a summit meeting of superstars with both players magnificently poised throughout this two-hour Wigmore Hall recital. Of course, Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin have performed together for over a decade now, so the rapport between them is natural, communication expressed both instinctively and through the occasional glance or nod of the head. It’s a perfect fit, and with such flawless balance and synchronicity of attack you might at times have been listening to a single pianist.

Marc-André Hamelin and Leif Ove Andsnes
© Richard Cannon

Let’s not forget the nerves of steel required for John Adams’ pulsing Hallelujah Junction, a 1996 work named after the truck stop on Highway 49 on the Californian/Nevada border. Its rhythmic games where one musical pattern is slightly out of phase with another can bring potential mayhem for the unwary. Needless to say, the split-level response from these two players was faultless. Precision of fast repeated chords, sudden metrical shifts and an effortless move into swing time seemed as unconscious as breathing. My only reservation was with the work itself which outstayed its welcome, its unremitting intensity straining my attention despite the breath-taking pianism.

By way of a palette cleanser there was Robert Schumann’s 6 Studies in Canonic Form transcribed for two pianos by Claude Debussy, a work that considerably enriches the original version conceived in 1845 for a pedal piano. Its melodic charm was much in evidence and enhanced by playing of much purity and sensitivity. Arguably, there might have been more intimacy in these performances, but the work’s salon-like quality came across clearly.

Marc-André Hamelin and Leif Ove Andsnes
© Richard Cannon

Quite why Debussy chose to arrange the work is uncertain given that it was some 24 years before his own two piano work En blanc et noir, and therefore cannot be regarded as any sort of preparatory exercise. That said, Debussy did fashion a two-piano arrangement of his Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune in 1895. If the essence of En blanc et noir is its classical detachment, this account had no absence of emotional involvement, its epigrammatic paragraphs variously imperious, puckish and turbulent. The brooding central panel with its references to the Marsellaise and the Lutheran hymn Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott prompted Saint-Saëns’ accusation of Germanophobia. Certainly, there’s a personal, even memorial aspect to this movement (dedicated to a friend killed in 1915) which Andsnes and Hamelin could have explored further had they found a more private, interior tone.

The duo seemed more at home with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, its first private performance in 1912 given by its composer and Debussy in a piano duet version. The Rite is very much in the DNA of Andsnes and Hamelin who recorded the work on two pianos for Hyperion some 14 years ago. Here, their account sometimes felt business-like, although there was no shortage of rhythmic gymnastics, both superbly disciplined in their timekeeping and undaunted by the work’s fearsome demands. Explosive, rather than thunderous and clusters of chords always cleanly articulated, their playing also found room to bring out the nocturnal languor that introduces The Sacrifice. Altogether, this was an account that fully lived up to expectations, and the two Steinways didn’t disappoint either. 

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