When French-Canadian pianists Louis Lortie and Hélène Mercier entered the stage of the Koerner Hall on Sunday, the 800-plus audience participated with an unprecedented level of attention. An episode also occurred to enforce this attention. When an anonymous concert-goer repeatedly started coughing during the recital, Lortie, feeling irritated, signalled a halt during the performance before commencing again. From then on, an aura surrounded these two pianists and the music they produced. Mercier was making her Koerner Hall debut, while Lortie was making his third return to the stage he last graced in 2011. During the next two hours, a new sphere of time and space took form as their fingers danced along the 88 black and white keys.

The closeness of two pianists can be observed from the approach they take to their repertory. This includes their willingness to take risks together, to tackle awkward hand positions in duets, and to uninhibitedly support each other, in order to make the best out of their collaborative efforts. As piano partners, Lortie and Mercier have been collaborating together since the 80s, when they traversed the four hands/two piano repertoire of Mozart and Ravel. This afternoon, they presented a diverse program of popular repertory – beginning with Mozart and ending with Liszt.

Starting with Mozart’s mature Andante and Variations in G major, the first half of the recital focused on three four-hand piano works. The Mozart emerged relatively straightforward, outlining the exquisite, chamber-like piano writing of Mozart and the motif that was core to the variations. As a composer of music for four hands, Schubert triumphs above Mozart, the later composer’s music for piano duet matching his solo piano work both in scope and quality. The famous Fantasy in F minor illustrated Lortie and Mercier’s ability to internalize intimate aspects of the piano duet as a medium, thereby bringing out the emotional depths of the piece. The opening melody was played austerely, almost heartbreakingly beautiful, while the dramatic double fugue showed off the duo’s magisterial performance.

Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole, on the other hand, is perhaps best known in its original two-piano version and, of course, the orchestral version. Lorite and Mercier presented the version for two pianists at one piano, and behind their virtuoso pyrotechnics, the duo sought to avoid imitating orchestral effects. Instead, they focused on the formal and timbral possibilities that are unique to the piano. At times, their frequent tinkering with tempo and mannered phrasings appeared exaggerated. However, the duo gave a fine range of colour and evocation of the Spanish influences that drew the composer into conceiving this work.

In the next two works, written for two pianos, the challenge for the pianists was to reach compromise of individual differences and timbral qualities of two distinct pianos, thereby bringing unity as a continuous dialogue. Rather than depending on body movements or audible intakes of breath, as when playing at just one piano, the duo now had to trust each other predominantly through their ears in bringing out the best of their music-making.

Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances (1940), one of his last compositions, was a challenge. While the work is more familiar in its orchestral version, this arrangement is a genuine piano composition true to the writing style of Rachmaninov at the time of his Études-Tableaux and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Technical prowess was not the first order of business for Lortie and Mercier. Rather, the pianists’ concern was to deliver tonal qualities and the rich palette of colours of the Steinway pianos, and to moderate success they achieved this. They sought to bring out contrasts between the romantic and gliding melodies of the dreamier passages and the latent threat and impulsive drive of the other sections. Overall, the two pianists painstakingly tried to outline the inner voices of the work and to find the driving rhythms that pushed the work’s momentum forward. However, they proved to be less successful to bring out the inherent and animated spirit in the pulsating dance rhythms, leaving much to be desired in the rhythmical aspects.

Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan, another popular work with daunting virtuosic episodes, represented a bold undertaking for the two pianists. The difficult details had a way to cloud most performers in presenting the bigger picture of this piece, especially during a live performance. But Lortie and Mercier made a strong case here: their complementary efforts poured over barlines and made music out of Liszt’s densely filled pages, surging and receding in persuasive ways. Lortie and Mercier left their audience wanting more, with rounds of applause; perhaps, the Koerner Hall organizers can consider a re-invitation in the near future after witnessing the enthusiastic response.