Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Stravinsky’s Music on Two Pianos on Hyperion

This Friday Hyperion will release a new recording of compositions that Igor Stravinsky wrote to be played by two pianists, most (but not all) of which required that each pianist play at a separate instrument. The recording offers an “all-star” coupling of pianists, both of whom have a solid command on the twentieth-century repertoire, Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin. As usual, Amazon.com is taking pre-orders prior to the release date.

The “main attraction” on the album is the four-hand reduction of the score for Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring.” Shortly before the ballet received its first performance on the (now notorious) date of May 29, 1913, Stravinsky and Claude Debussy gave a “special preview” of the music to a select audience. This is the one selection on the album that can be played on a single piano. However, Andsnes and Hamelin chose to perform it on two pianos for a series of recitals they scheduled during the 2016–2017 season (one of which I attended in San Francisco); and presumably that is the way they recorded it for this album.

Their San Francisco performance also included most of the other selections on this album. The longest of these was the concerto for two pianos that Stravinsky wrote between 1934 and 1935 to play with his son Soulima. In addition the encore selections for that concert also required two pianos. The first of these was Soulima’s arrangement of “Madrid,” which Igor originally composed as a piano roll and then orchestrated and included in the piece he published as Quatre études (four studies). The second was the “Circus Polka” that Igor wrote in 1942 for choreographer George Balanchine’s collaboration with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Stravinsky wrote this as a piano solo from which David Raksin (best known as the composer of “Laura”) prepared an arrangement for organ and concert band. Stravinsky subsequently rearranged the piece for orchestra for a performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1944; and the two-piano arrangement was prepared by Victor Babin. All of these pieces are included on the Hyperion album along with Babin’s arrangement of the tango that Stravinsky wrote for solo piano in 1940.

I have to confess that, as a concert performance, this was a disappointing experience. To be fair, however, much of that disappointment may have come from my familiarity with a four-hands-on-one-keyboard interpretation of the score given by the ZOFO duo of Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmermann. They played this music at their very first public concert, and it then showed up on the first recording they released. Comparing my memories of their performances with the partnership of Andsnes and Hamelin, I realized that much of the spontaneity of ZOFO’s interpretation arose from their side-by-side execution. In recital Andsnes and Hamelin had to exchange glances with each other across a distance somewhat longer than the length of either of the two grand pianos on the stage. This is a formidable distance, particularly when highly complex rhythms are involved; and the resulting account of “The Rite of Spring” never quite captured the fiercely spontaneous spirit behind the music.

Would Igor have taken this “distance problem” into account when he wrote his concerto for Soulima? We may never know for certain, but it is reasonable to assume that both father and son had considerable familiarity with each other’s playing habits. They may not have been quite as attuned to each other’s habits as Babin was with his two-piano partner Vitya Vronsky; but given the intensity that both Andsnes and Hamelin devote to their respective solo repertoires, I have to question whether they were ever psychologically close enough to bring life to some highly challenging abstractions for separate piano keyboards. All the selections on this album would be far better left to the performance technique of a duo that plays regularly as a duo, which must, of necessity, be qualitatively different from that of pianists concerned primarily with solo work.

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