Not to be outdone by the likes of Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim, Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-Andre Hamelin are the latest example of stellar pianists with flourishing solo careers who have elected to branch out as a piano duo for select concert and recording occasions.
Such ad hoc instrumental marriages do not invariably reflect happily on either partner. But the performance by Andsnes and Hamelin on matching Steinway grand pianos Sunday afternoon at Orchestra Hall turned out to be a resounding success.
The pianists are just different enough in matters of style and temperament to complement one another. In their recital of Mozart, Debussy and Stravinsky, the precision and spontaneity of their playing reflected a summit meeting of fingers and minds you would expect to find in far more seasoned duos than theirs.
Mozart's twin-keyboard music is a logical means of establishing an even playing field. The Norwegian pianist and his Canada-born colleague came up with a Mozartean rarity, a short Larghetto and Allegro in E flat heard in Paul Badura-Skoda's completion. The music made a well-mannered impression, its sunny surface briefly broken by a touch of Sturm und Drang.
Debussy's "En Blanc et Noir" ("In Black and White") summoned a range of colors, articulations, dynamics and expressive shadings that well suited these late pieces. The duo pianists vividly conveyed the bleakness of the second section, a bitter lament for French soldiers fallen in World War I that incorporates an ironic reference to the Lutheran chorale "Ein Feste Burg."
The bulk of Sunday's concert was devoted to Stravinsky, beginning with one of his lesser-known neoclassical pieces, the 1931-35 Concerto for Two Pianos. Andsnes and Hamelin brought lift to the rhythms, definition to the spiky contrapuntal textures, of music that can easily sound aridly academic in lesser hands.
After intermission, Hamelin took the primo piano part for the afternoon's piece de resistance, Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," given in the rarely heard two-piano reduction of the orchestral score the composer prepared prior to the ballet's infamous premiere in 1913.
The standard criticism of this version is that it amounts to a black-and-white deconstruction of this riotously colorful landmark of early 20th-century symphonic modernism, a criticism Hamelin and Andsnes made irrelevant by eloquently arguing the music's merits on purely pianistic terms. They didn't try to imitate an orchestral sonority, which would have been futile. Instead, they played up the tightly interlocking rhythms and clarified dense textures, taking the listener past Stravinsky's gnashing dissonances to show how this revolutionary music is made.
Packing so much musical complexity into 176 keys of course requires formidable technique on the part of both pianists; so fearsome are the ensemble difficulties that the slightest finger slip or faulty gear shift would have proved fatal. Nothing of the sort happened Sunday, when the judiciously balanced Hamelin and Andsnes struck sparks off one another to produce an astonishingly clean yet tremendously exciting performance.
Here was a very different "Rite of Spring" than most of us know. While this fascinating abstraction is no substitute for the orchestral masterpiece, it proved to be a perfectly valid supplement that one was grateful to experience at white heat.
Naturally the auditorium exploded into a resounding standing O. As encores, the pianists offered three shorter two-piano transcriptions of Stravinsky works: "Madrid," from the Four Studies for Orchestra; "Circus Polka"; and "Tango," variously arranged by the composer's son Soulima Stravinsky and Victor Babin. The duo had great fun with these delectable vignettes, which show the composer as the most urbane of musical entertainers.