It is not even an anniversary year but within the first two months of 2018 we have already had some truly significant Stravinsky discs. The first recording of the rediscovered 1908 work Funeral Song by Chailly and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra on Decca was one example—but this issue of his two-piano works played by a pair of contemporary master pianists is a collaboration to be savoured, a real meeting of minds.
Prone as I am to hyperbole, I have to say right at the outset that this is one of the most truthfully recorded piano discs I have ever heard. The sound picture afforded by the Teldex Studio in Berlin is utterly natural—uncluttered and crystal clear despite the density and sheer quantity of notes; the recorded sound achieved by engineer Arne Akselberg and producer Andrew Keener could not be more suited to Stravinsky’s ascetic vision.
For the last couple of years the superb two-piano account of the Rite by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and François-Frédéric Guy on Chandos (CHAN 10863) has been a regular presence on my CD player. Chandos gave this French duo plenty of air around the sound, and in their excellent performance they seem to try to mine the pianos to the max to extract Stravinsky’s orchestral colours, a strategy which is most effective in the typical Chandos ambience (it was recorded at the Arsenal concert hall in Metz).
Prior to considering the present performance, it is perhaps worth reminding ourselves of one of Stravinsky’s oft-quoted comments, culled from his 1935 autobiography: ‘I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, or psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc….Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence.’
Not only do Hamelin and Andsnes present the Rite in this ascetic kind of way, but the Hyperion production allows the notes utterly to speak for themselves. These two giants demonstrate apparently telepathic understanding with both the composer and with each other. They are the epitome of a perfectly-tuned engine.
In the early 1980s the pioneering German electronic band Kraftwerk toured the UK. At the time they were developing their de-humanised ‘robots’ personae and stood in a line on stage at their instruments, each individual’s physical movements seemingly mechanically synchronised with their colleagues. I did not attend any of the shows but remember laughing at a NME review of one of the gigs which described an amp blowing up on stage in the middle of a particular song, and one of the band audibly complaining 'Damn, the sound’s gone…' , before they stopped and started it again from the beginning. My amusement was redoubled a couple of weeks later when a letter appeared in the same publication pointing out that at Kraftwerk’s next gig in Leicester the correspondent had witnessed exactly the same incident, at exactly the same point in the show, with exactly the same comment. This memory came to mind when I listened to Hamelin and Andsnes playing the Rite of Spring. (I know they toured the work at the time of the recording, to rave reviews—I imagine these shows were visually, as well as sonically arresting.)
Of course I am alluding to the ‘means of production’ here, rather than to the production itself. The precision of the playing, of the ensemble, of the dynamics is quite beyond human. But that is NOT to say its robotic; on the contrary this Rite has real humanity and total musicality. Their mutually instinctive/intuitive feel for attack and release, their perfect execution presents the Rite, even in its less familiar two-piano form, in perhaps its most authentic Stravinskian garb. This is a reading that in my view connects the work more squarely with the Russian modernists of the twenties (e.g., Mosolov, Protopopov) than any other version I have encountered, orchestral or keyboard. From the opening ‘bassoon’ melody (supposedly derived from a Lithuanian folk tune) right through to the terrifying dissonant chord with which it concludes, this is one of the most riveting renderings of this work I have encountered. In 2016 Theodor Currentzis gave us perhaps the definitive orchestral Rite (two of my three fellow reviewers vehemently disagreed). This account of the two-piano version is unmissable in itself and far, far more than a desirable pendant. Yet these two interpretations span an entire civilisation: Currentzis tunes in to Russia’s primitive, ancestral past; Hamelin and Andsnes to its mechanised, collectivist future.
While Guy and Bavouzet offer arrangements of Debussy’s Jeux and Bartók’s Two Pictures as couplings (works that are rich in colour and thus seemingly suit the particular skills of that duo), Andsnes and Hamelin offer more Stravinsky in the guise of the Concerto for two solo pianos and arrangements of Madrid, Tango and Circus Polka. The Concerto belongs squarely in Stravinsky’s neo-classical phase. The excellent note by his biographer Stephen Walsh reminds us that by the early 1930s Stravinsky had basically embarked on something of a second career, touting his own works as a pianist (often with his son Soulima), and had largely turned his back on ballet in general and (the recently deceased) Diaghilev in particular. The Concerto’s formal inspiration lies in Beethoven, and here Hamelin and Andsnes add a degree of restraint to their breathtaking virtuosity. In a work so stylistically rooted in the early nineteenth century, a source of repertoire in which both players also excel, their superb execution is not a surprise. Yet the overall impression on hearing this performance is amazement at the imagination, elegance and craftsmanship behind Stravinsky’s formal conception. This was really brought home to me listening to the last movement Preludio e fuga, which I immediately repeated. The less familiar Concerto provides a superb counterweight to the Rite; its recording is as unequivocally brilliant as its performance.
I suspect that had these pianists performed these two works live in an hour-long recital the audience would have demanded encores; refusal to comply would almost certainly have precipitated scenes comparable with those seen at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées back in 1913. Here this Rolls-Royce partnership further demonstrate their showmanship in Soulima’s arrangement of Madrid, originally a trifle conceived for the pianola, and Victor Babin’s more familiar arrangements of the Tango and the Circus Polka. They put the cherry on the top of a truly wonderful disc. Even by Hyperion’s exacting standards, I imagine it will be a tough ask for them to match this stupendous release in what remains of 2018.