A Wealth of Pianists at The Wallis

(L-R) Pianists Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin in performance at The Wallis (photo: Rob Latour for The Wallis).

The pianist is the traveling nomad of the classical music world. Pianists can go on tour alone, unencumbered by accompanists or orchestras. However, recent concerts at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts have challenged that image, focusing on collaborations between artists.

In an April 26 concert, Marc-André Hamelin and Leif Ove Andsnes presented a program of works for two pianos. It was an intriguing combination­—two virtuosos famous for their solo performances working together. The two met when Andsnes invited Hamelin to perform at a musical festival he curated in Norway. Hamelin suggested the two play a two-piano version of Igor Stravinsky’s monumental The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps). From there, the friendship and artistic collaboration flourished.

The evening was mostly devoted to early twentieth century works from Stravinsky and Claude Debussy, though the concert started with Mozart’s Larghetto and Allegro in E-flat major, a short piece the composer never completed. It’s Mozart at his lightest and airiest, the soundtrack to a mid-summer stroll along a sun-speckled pond. The two musicians were often at odds—one would state the theme before it bounced across the stage to be interpreted by the other. Initially austere, the music became more elaborate and developed until Andsnes and Hamelin were barreling toward the finish.

The remainder of the first half of the program explored the mutual influences of Stravinsky and Debussy. Composed in 1935, Stravinsky’s Concerto for Two Pianos fits squarely within his neo-classical period. From the 1920s through mid-1950s, Stravinsky abandoned the jagged, dissonant works of his youth in favor of a cooler style influenced by classical era composers. The harmonies were straight out of the twentieth century, but the musical forms organizing them belonged to Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart.

Andsnes took on the lead part, spending most of the piece in the piano’s highest register, while Hamelin hammered sinister bass notes. The first movement conjured images of a bustling city, filled with people and sights, as well as a hidden underbelly. The second movement took the form of a demented military march, something that might have been played on a child’s toy piano, and a sign of the turmoil that would rock Europe in a few short years.

The greatest influence on Stravinsky’s music was that of Debussy, his close friend and mentor. The harmonically complex works from his impressionist period would be absorbed into Stravinsky’s musical language, and his later neo-classical period would pave the way for Stravinsky’s own mid-period music. Toward the end of his life, Debussy’s output became suffused with bits of his younger friend’s music. En blanc et noir (1915) retains the classical form Debussy adopted in his final years, but is suffused with the dissonant tonalities Stravinsky was then experimenting with.

The opening movement begins with rolling arpeggios that transfer from one piano to the other, like waves flowing across the stage. The music is powerful, but Hamelin and Andsnes managed to coax the notes out without any harshness. The middle movement, dedicated to one of Debussy’s friends killed in the First World War, takes on a darker tone, replete with images of unstoppable tanks bulldozing the cities (and culture) of Europe. The final movement, dedicated to Stravinsky, opened with a fluttering line of notes from Andsnes that quoted Stravinsky’s ballet, The Firebird, in a loving and playful tribute.

Hamelin and Andsnes finished the program with the piece that began their musical relationship, The Rite of Spring. Although the ballet is usually performed by a large orchestra, Stravinsky wrote a version for piano four hands, in which two players sit together at the keyboard. Debussy, an accomplished site-reader, played the four hands version of The Rite with Stravinsky prior to the orchestral premiere. For this performance, Andsnes and Hamelin chose to use two separate pianos to cut down on the awkward crisscrossing required for the complicated piece. An individual piano is a small ensemble in its own right—many composers first write orchestral scores in a reduction for solo piano. Hamelin and Andsnes performed as if two mini-orchestras were dueling from either side of the stage.

Some of the wild invention of The Rite’s orchestral color is lost in the version for two pianos, but Hamelin and Andsnes unveiled other less obvious aspects of the music. The sheer size of the orchestra often obscures Stravinsky’s complicated rhythmic schemes, but the simple use of two pianos illustrated how the parts overlap and intertwine seamlessly. Parts that are sometimes missed in the orchestral version were now audible. The final section, the Sacrificial Dance, retained every ounce of menace and power. After the thunderous applause died down, Hamelin and Andsnes concluded the evening with two Stravinsky miniatures—his Tango (1940) and Circus Polka (1942).

British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor at The Wallis (photo: Rob Latour for The Wallis).

British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor took a more conventional route for his lengthy program on April 30. As the earlier concert had explored the nature of the piano duo, this evening was devoted to the most prototypical of solo piano pieces, the sonata. Grosvenor performed Mozart’s Linz, Scriabin’s Fantasy, and Beethoven’s iconic Moonlight sonata. The beauty and mystery of the Moonlight’s first movement encourages many pianists to take a somber and morose tempo, but Grosvenor kept it light and flowing. It was with Scriabin’s Fantasy sonata that he dug into its darker, more impressionistic mood.

Grosvenor concluded the body of the concert with two selections from Enrique Granados’s Goyescas, a suite inspired by the paintings of Francisco Goya. Aside from the weighty pieces at the center of the concert, the night was bookended by two lighter shorts, Robert Schumann’s Arabesque and Franz Liszt’s Rhapsodie espagnole. The Arabesque set the mood for the night with its rapid-fire oscillations between the florid opening them and its darkly passionate detours, which Grosvenor played subtly and poignantly. The Rhapsodie espagnole, composed of traditional Spanish and Portuguese dances, was an opportunity for Grosvenor to show off his technical prowess—during the most furious sections, his hands seemed to blur as they attacked the keyboard.

The Wallis’s 2017/2018 season will continue its parade of great pianists. The American pianist and educator Jonathan Biss will play a program devoted to two of his musical heroes, Beethoven and Schumann. It will also feature a piece Biss commissioned from the late Leon Kirchner. Israeli-American pianist Ory Shihor will perform a two-part concert devoted to Franz Schubert’s final three piano sonatas and the stories of their genesis. Finally, MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship recipient Jeremy Denk will play an evening of works by Beethoven, Liszt, and Sergei Prokofiev. It will only be The Wallis’s fifth season, but the organization has already shown itself to be devoted to the best in classical and chamber music.

(L-R) Marc-André Hamelin and Leif Ove Andsnes at The Wallis (photo: Rob Latour for The Wallis).