When Le sacre du printemps hit the stage in 1913, it prompted the most notorious musical riot of the 20th century. The ballet’s raw barbarism and rhythmic intricacy may not have dimmed over the intervening century but its reception has undergone a sea-change: the Rite is now part of the standard repertoire. Stravinsky’s own arrangement for two pianos is less frequently encountered: it takes a pair of special pianists to pull off the illusion of evoking the massive orchestra of the original; or even more challenging, to banish memories of it altogether. But that is the singular achievement of Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin on this outstanding new release.
On the surface, they may present a study in contrasts—the cool elegance of Andsnes against the virtuoso flamboyance of Hamelin—but as a pairing, they bring incredible rhythmic attack, precision and clarity to Stravinsky’s music. Dovetailing seamlessly, with the coordination of a single, four-handed pianist, they bring carefree nonchalance to the complex rhythms of the first part of the Rite. The percussive offbeats of the ‘Ritual Action’ and ‘Sacrificial dance’ were obviously composed on the piano and work perfectly on the instrument. But it’s not all thumping and banging: Andsnes and Hamelin draw a kaleidoscope of colours from their modern Steinways in the shimmering, Impressionistic introduction to Part 2 and the ‘Mystic Circles’.
The pair plays with tenderness in the central Notturno from the Concerto for two solo pianos, and sparkling finesse in the final Preludio e fuga. The encore is the riotous Circus Polka, in Victor Babin’s arrangement, and it brings the house down. An intense experience from beginning to end.