STRAVINSKY Rite of Spring. Concerto for 2 Pianos
In August 2015 I assessed a clutch of new recordings of the four-hands version of The Rite of Spring and noted that Guy and Bavouzet were far superior to all their rivals, not least – but also not only – because they were performing their own arrangement on two pianos rather Stravinsky’s for a single instrument. That choice frees the pianists to reincorporate some of the orchestral detail that inevitably had to go when Stravinsky made his original duet version as a purely practical way of introducing the complex and unfamiliar idiom to his Ballets Russes colleagues. It also means that a wider range of colour can be accessed, simply because the players no longer have to jostle each other for – quite literally – elbow-room.
That this superiority is not an automatic thing in actual performance is shown by Barenboim and Argerich, who, despite using two instruments, are neither as idiomatic nor as polished as their finest single-piano counterparts. But now comes a version that flies as high as the two Frenchmen, and in some respects arguably even higher. The differences in approach are very soon apparent. The Introduction to Part 1 shows that Hamelin and Andsnes are a degree more vividly recorded and that their instruments – perhaps also their touch – are more brightly coloured. After this brighter stage-lighting Guy and Bavouzet sound unduly muted. On the other hand the French pair contrive to work in more of the ‘missing’ orchestral texture, be it from the alternatives noted in the published duet score or details gleaned from the orchestral score itself (in which respect Barenboim and Argerich scarcely bothered at all). So pretty soon there are swirls of figuration from the Frenchmen, suggesting, perhaps, the mists of time as Stravinsky transports us to his mythical pre historic arena.
One way to sum up the difference is that Guy and Bavouzet are generally more impressionistic (remember that Stravinsky and Debussy actually played the duet version together), Hamelin and Andsnes more modernistic (The Rite is, after all, the godfather of so much musical innovation in the past 100 years). Time and again Guy and Bavouzet score highly in terms of how much orchestral detail they are able to recover. And yet Hamelin and Andsnes are irresistibly clear and energetic, so that the sheer physical excitement is on an altogether higher level. Hear their accumulation through the ‘Danse de la terre’ at the end of Part 1, where the Frenchmen leave the crescendo so late that it almost doesn’t happen at all. And thrill to the impact of the ‘Danse sacrale’, where Guy and Bavouzet have already let the preceding ‘Action rituelle des ancêtres’ go slightly off the boil and never fully recover momentum afterwards. Still, if I had been at the sessions I think I might have asked some annoying questions: why not restore the two quavers missing in the bar before fig 44 of the ‘Jeu du rapt’ (surely a simple transcribing error on Stravinsky’s part); why blast out the low octaves in the ‘Glorification de l’élue’ precisely at the point where the original scoring is comparatively light; why not let us hear at least some of the notated optional counterpoints in the central section of the ‘Danse sacrale’? Admittedly such moments would probably only bother a listener who knows the scores rather well. In the final analysis both recordings are outstanding and leave all others trailing, and I wouldn’t put money on their being matched any time soon. The Hyperion recording places the pianos left and right, where Chandos has them side by side. But I cannot say this would affect my choice.
For couplings, Guy and Bavouzet offered transcriptions of Debussy’s Jeux and Bartók’s Two Pictures, superbly played but not made by their respective composers and not wholly convincing. Hamelin and Andsnes have the Concerto for two pianos, which is Stravinskian neoclassicism at its highest metabolic rate of musical inventiveness: by turns gleefully sardonic and inscrutable, and horribly difficult to bring off. Here my critical pen rests and I reach for my hat. For sheer articulacy, synchronised gymnastics, flawless balance, range of colour and flinty attack, or any other criterion you care to reach for, this is breathtaking pianism. Stravinsky composed the piece for himself and his son, Soulima, to play, and their 1935 recording shows they could more than meet its technical demands; but their historic sound quality inevitably suggests a fuzzy black-and-white photograph by comparison with Hyperion’s high-definition reality.
Throw in three miniatures – Madrid in Soulima’s own transcription, the Tango and Circus Polka in versions by Victor Babin – plus an authoritative programme note by Stephen Walsh and you have an immensely collectable album: a strong candidate for Disc of the Year, never mind of the Month.