First a threshold question: Is there any point in listening to the Rite of Spring in its arrangement for two pianos in the first place? The answer is 'yes,' even though this necessarily monochrome version (compared to the orchestral original) can’t possibly capture the impact that Stravinsky achieves simply through piling on the timbre of the full orchestra. What it does reveal, though, is a harmonic clarity and a focus on melody that makes certain sections, especially the climaxes, sound very different than they ordinarily do—more linear, more lyrical, less strenuous.
Consider the 'Spring Rounds' section in the work’s first part. The orchestral version, with its crashing tam-tam and terrifying brass smears, hits you in the gut. As heard on two pianos, we can follow how Stravinsky fragments and distributes the melody in different registers, and maintains the long, lyrical line all the way through the section. It’s really a different experience entirely, equally legitimate in its way, and certainly an illuminating commentary on the composer’s technique. All of which brings us to this particular performance.
There’s no question that Marc-André Hamelin and Leif Ove Andsnes, aside from having tripartite names in common, represent a sort of pianistic 'dream team' when it comes to music of this difficulty and complexity. Simply put, they turn in a version of The Rite not just technically astounding, but paced and interpreted as well as any of the best full-orchestra performances. There’s not a moment when you think to yourself, 'This should be faster, or slower, or lighter, or weightier.' It’s a fully realized, perfectly executed vision of the work, nowhere more so than in the latter half of the second part, where so many other performances bog down in the music’s minimalist rhythmic repetitiousness. And my God, how they tear into the concluding Sacrificial Dance!
And let’s not forget the other major work here. Stravinsky’s Concerto for Two Pianos is one of his most perfectly crafted neoclassical masterpieces. It attracts little attention these days, but here’s a performance whose crispness, elegance, and clarity (in the final fugue especially) ought to win it many new friends. The piece has received plenty of fine outings on disc previously, from the Kontarsky brothers on DG in particular, but this interpretation is special because it manages to be precise, that is 'Stravinskian', without ever sounding merely mechanical. The virtuosity of the players never draws attention to itself; rather, it gives the music an easy flow that projects a true sense of joy in the act of bringing the work to life.
The shorter pieces are nice to have, but almost beside the point next to the main items. If you take your Stravinsky at all seriously, you will need to hear this.