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A primer on Marc-André Hamelin's new Stravinsky album

Robert Rowat

Ten years ago, pianist Marc-André Hamelin received an invitation to perform at fellow pianist Leif Ove Andsnes's chamber music festival in Risør, Norway.

Upon accepting, Hamelin met with Andsnes to discuss repertoire. "One of the first things I said was that we just had to do The Rite Of Spring," recalls Hamelin. "He wasn't familiar with Stravinsky's arrangement [for piano duet] at the time, but quickly became fascinated by it."

After performing it together in Norway, the two pianists toured it in Europe and America. "We must have done it close to 20 times by now, if not more," Hamelin adds. Now, the duo is set to release The Rite of Spring along with Stravinsky's Concerto for Two Solo Pianos and a handful of other piano-duo miniatures for Hyperion Records on Feb. 2.

While Stravinsky arranged The Rite of Spring for four hands at one piano, Hamelin and Andsnes play it on two.

"[It] is much easier to play, and sounds much better, on two instruments," Hamelin explains. "At this particular period in music history, four-hand arrangements were very important; most orchestral works were arranged for four hands — even chamber music and [solo] piano music! (The entirety of Chopin's solo piano output exists in duet form, for example.) And in the case of The Rite, the piano version was also suitable for ballet rehearsals."

There are technical advantages to playing it on two pianos. "We suddenly have much more control over sonority, since we have two pedals instead of one," continues Hamelin. "Also, there are a few passages that are written in such a way as to render an accurate performance impossible [on one piano]; the two instruments make that difficulty disappear completely. Finally, a two-piano performance affords us the possibility to restore some orchestral lines that Stravinsky, because of the limits of the four-hand medium, had been forced to leave out."

No arranging or adapting is required, however, for Stravinsky's Concerto for Two Solo Pianos, composed in 1935 at the height of the composer's neo-classical period. "We think [it] is an extremely interesting work, and one which incidentally was among Stravinsky's own favourites. The two works are very different from each other, and the fact that they came from the same mind is truly fascinating."

The album is rounded out by Madrid, arranged for two pianos by Stravinsky's son Soulima; Tango, originally a solo piano piece, arranged by Victor Babin; and Circus Polka, a commission from the Ringling Brothers, also arranged by Babin.

'Genuine cleverness'

A composer/pianist himself, Hamelin says the surviving recordings of Stravinsky himself playing piano reveal considerable ability at the keyboard. "[He] knew the possibilities of the instrument intimately. Also, it's well known that he always composed at the piano. There are quite a few places in this program which display genuine cleverness, and his ear for two-piano writing in particular was wonderful."

Hamelin and Andsnes bring that two-piano writing to life with a unity of purpose. "Our approach to the music (and to the craft of two-piano playing) is that we always have in mind what's best for the music, and that any considerations of either one of us 'upstaging' the other — something that many listeners seem to be curious about — never even enters our minds."

The Rite of Spring & other works for two pianos four hands will be released on Feb. 2. For more information, head over to Hyperion Records.

Hear Hamelin in person at his upcoming Canadian dates:

- Feb. 4: Chamber music with Pacifica Quartet, Maison symphonique de Montréal.
- Feb. 20, 21: Concert with Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, Winnipeg, Man.
- March 4: Solo recital at Can Centre for the Performing Arts, Vancouver, B.C.
- May 8 to 12: Brahms Concerto No. 1 with Symphony Nova Scotia, Halifax, N.S.
- May 30: Ravel Piano Concerto for the Left Hand with l'Orchestre Symphonique de Québec.

More to explore:

10 surprisingly good covers of Debussy's 'Clair de lune'

How Phlip Glass's Etudes changed pianist Jenny Lin's life

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