Two pianists play ‘Rite’ in a rare harmonious relationship

Pianos are unforgiving when played in duos but that did not deter Hamelin and Andsnes

It’s rare for two leading pianists to team up to play music for four hands, either in duets on one piano, or as a duo on separate instruments. The percussive attack of the piano makes it a particularly challenging medium, one in which tiny lapses of ensemble create disproportionately obvious effects.

Many of the more famous classical duos – France’s Labèque sisters, Turkey’s Pekinel sisters, Germany’s Kontarsky brothers, Ireland’s Trimble sisters – have been family affairs, a great example of genetic closeness carrying over into the musical domain.

When I meet up with Marc-André Hamelin, he points to “a new piano duo team that were signed by Warner a few years ago; the Naughton sisters, Christina and Michelle. I met them. It’s remarkable, because apparently in rehearsals they hardly talk. They feel and they have certain signals, I guess. They just know each other.” Sibling closeness, he says, helps in playing two pianos, “much more than in string ensembles”.

Canadian Hamelin and his Norwegian musical partner Leif Ove Andsnes met when Andsnes was still one of the directors of the Risør Chamber Music Festival in Norway. "It's a wonderful little place," says Hamelin. "In 2008 he wanted to invite me. We met in a hotel in London. Right away I suggested we should do The Rite of Spring. He wasn't familiar with the arrangement. It is an arrangement Stravinsky made, primarily I think, for ballet rehearsals, and also because almost everything was transcribed for four hands at that time."


The Rite came into a world that didn't yet know radio and when gramophones were mostly used for recordings of songs and short piano pieces. So to get to know larger works, you had to go and hear an actual performance, or you could play or listen to them in arrangements made for home use.

‘Stravinsky’s approval’

The Stravinsky arrangement is for four hands on one piano. But, says Hamelin, "The arrangement is much better suited to, and much better reproduced on, two pianos. And I'm sure Stravinsky would not have objected to a two-piano performance. The very first recording with Michael Tilson Thomas and Ralph Grierson, in the early 1970s, was done, I think, with Stravinsky's approval."

Since then, the arrangement has taken on a life of its own, and is seen by some people as a version that, in the absence of the full gamut of orchestral colour and sonority, somehow concentrates the musical essence of the piece.

“We did two pre-performances in Norway, and then we did it in Risør. He had a residency at the Berlin Philharmonic a few years after, so we did it there. And in 2010 he took his Risør festival on tour: Oslo, Brussels, the Wigmore Hall in London and Carnegie Hall in New York. We did it in each of these places. So we played it a lot.”

The duo's performance at the National Concert Hall in Dublin is part of a 13-stop tour. It will then make its way into the recording studio, for an all-Stravinsky CD on the Hyperion label, featuring the Rite, the Concerto for two pianos, Madrid, the Tango and the Circus Polka.

"What can I say about The Rite of Spring? I cannot imagine a moment in my life when I did not know it. I found out about it as a little boy. I often ask myself what it would be like to discover it at my age. It's just one of these pieces that sound to be completely inevitable. It sounds like it's always existed. And it's something that had to happen, too. I feel that way about many of the great masterpieces."

The touring programme features Mozart and Debussy as well as more Stravinsky. The Mozart Larghetto and Allegro in E flat is an unfinished piece that Hamelin came across in the very first concert he ever went to by himself, to hear the Kontarsky brothers, in 1970. "For a while they were the duo piano team for contemporary music. I saw them with my own eyes play part of the Boulez Structures from memory. I mean, who does that?"

Dense and challenging

The Mozart completion that Hamelin and Andsnes play is by Paul Badura-Skoda.

Debussy's En blanc et noir "is among his last works, and the spirit of the war – he died in 1918 – is very much present, in more ways than one. It's a very curious collection of pieces, very rewarding, very dense, and quite challenging for the listener."

Stravinsky's Concerto for two pianos – a concerto that by design doesn't involve an orchestra – was written "for Stravinsky and his son to play, and they actually recorded it. With the miracle of YouTube you can listen to it; it's one click away. It may not be the best performance ever – it was done in the days of 78s when you couldn't do retakes – but it does offer a very authentic vision of the work." The Naughton sisters can also be seen on YouTube.

Hamelin is effusive about Andsnes as a partner. He describes him as “a very noble soul, and never has a bad word about anyone, which is a sterling quality. He follows his ideals very strongly, he has a great sense of purpose, and I don’t have to tell you what a marvellous musician he is.”

As a performer with a reputation for a kind of super-human mastery and musical grasp of areas of the repertoire that most normal pianists shy away from, Hamelin often gets asked what the most difficult thing about piano playing is. “And I know darn well what they expect me to answer, thirds, octaves, sixths. No. It’s the ability to be able to hear yourself during performance the same way the public is hearing you. And that’s a very tall order.”

If he has a failing in this regard, he says, “it’s that I haven’t listened enough to my recordings or performances”. It’s not something he anticipates with pleasure. “Whenever I do, it does answer a lot of questions. And it throws doubt at me. So I have to revise. It’s like getting me into a pool. It’s very difficult. But once I’m there, I want to stay.”

Marc-André Hamelin and Leif Ove Andsnes play at the National Concert Hall on Saturday, April 1st,