May at the outset comment on the exceptional merit of the rendition by the two pianists, Norwegian Leif Ove Andsnes and Canadian Marc-Andre Hamelin who performed to perfection all pieces from beginning to end, the merit of Stravinsky's music notwithstanding.
With the exception of the 'Concerto for two pianos' which is presented here in its initial form, all other pieces are arrangements for two solo pianos. The works of Stravinsky are well suited for piano arrangement for the simple reason that the composer developed them on the piano before the eventual orchestration.
The two main pieces in the album could hardly have been more different: the explosive primitive Russianness with folkloric elements of' 'The Rite of Spring' contrasts with the urbane classic formalism of the 'Concerto for two solo pianos'.
The theme, of the orchestral ballet of the 'Rite of Spring' is a pagan ritual of the annual choosing of a young virgin to be sacrificed to ensure the return of Spring. The brilliance of the ballet orchestration notwithstanding, the music is admirably suited on the piano, because - without the distraction of the stage - one appreciates better the elegant, concise nature of the monumental slabs of music, a kind of cyclopean architecture.
The 'Concerto for two solo pianos' was written at a time in the thirties when Stravinsky was thinking more of concert tours and less about ballet and theater. At the time he was composing the concerto, he had steeped himself in the variations of Beethoven and Brahms, and in Beethoven fugues. The concerto duly ends with a big variation movement followed by a fugue on the variation theme. It begins with a sonata-form movement which is followed by a 'Notturno' second movement.
The ancillary movements are arranged: 'Madrid' by his son Soulima and 'Tango' and 'Circus Polka' by Victor Babin. It is interesting to note that 'Circus Polka' is literal, composed in 1941-2 to a commission from the Ringling Brothers for a piece to be choreographed by George Balanchine for the elephants in Barnum and Bailey's Circus in New York.
To introduce the ballet impresario Diaghilev and the dancers of the Ballets Russes to the complexities of his new score Stravinsky transcribed it for piano (four hands). That was how the revolutionary Rite of Spring was first heard. That version had limitations – players got in each other’s way and they couldn’t double passages – and he replaced it by one for two pianos. That version is played here by Marc-Andre Hamelin and Leif Ove Andsnes to dazzling, scintillating and often amazing effect. Such is the elemental power they conjure up the Sacred Dance and Glorification of the Chosen One that the orchestral version is momentarily forgotten – a tribute to Stravinsky’s skill as a transcriber. Hamelin and Andsnes are just as impressive in Stravinsky’s gleefully tricky neoclassical Concerto for two solo pianos. Three miniatures – Madrid, transcribed by Stravinsky’s son Soulima, Tango and Circus Polka transcribed by Victor Babin – complete an impressive disc.