Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
Marc-André Hamelin, piano
Wolfram Brandl, violin
Christian Stadelmann, violin
Ulrich Knörzer, viola
Ludwig Quandt, cello
Andreas Ottensamer, clarinet
Stefan Dohr, horn
Stefan Schweigert, bassoon
Debussy, En blanc et noir
Schnittke, Piano Quintet
Stravinsky, Le Sacre du printemps
When each piece on a program is a discovery, and when each performance of that discovery is a wonder, then you have The Perfect Evening of Classical Music. And on Sunday, Leif Ove Andsnes, the pianist-in-residence at the Berlin Philharmonic, brought us that Perfect Evening. Intellectual rigor and lush splendor combined to create a remarkable panorama of the musical twentieth century.
To start, Marc-André Hamelin and Andsnes gave the richly Gallic beauty of Debussy’s En blanc et noir a colorful verve, bringing sharp clarity to the blurry harmonies omnipresent in the composer’s late style (it was written in 1915, three years after Jeux). The duo made for excellent partners, Andsnes bringing his crystalline touch and Hamelin adding a lyrical wistfulness.
Stravinsky’s Septet, one of his first serial works written in the wake of his conversion by Robert Craft, was wholly unknown to me but is now a new favorite. It provides a delightful blend of punchy neo-classicism and Second Viennese School expressionism. The first movement is all pointy figurations, the second a haunting homage to Webern (complete with a Klangfarbenmelodie opening and a series of Brahmsian variations), the third a jagged double-fugue alternating between string trio and piano-plus-winds quartet. Andsnes and six members of the Berlin Philharmonic gave a super-refined, buoyant reading.
But the heart of the program lay in an exquisite rendition of Schnittke’s Piano Quintet, easily the best performance I have heard so in Berlin (and that’s coming up against some stiff competition). It is a heart-wrenching work of lament, written in the wake of the death of the composer’s mother, dwelling in a plaintive, spare sound world. The quintet begins with an aching, economic piano prelude, each note methodically placed; the string quartet glosses on top, in a kind of muted trance. The piano begins repeating a single, high-pitched note, a tinnitus-like effect, and the intensity grows, the strings’ hushed texture transforming into an abrasive buzz, which fades away though the tinnitus-note remains.
Suddenly, the quartet shifts into an uncanny waltz, and the piano joins—a memory wrenched out of the past, a painful experience painfully recalled. These polystylistic ruminations continue for a while. After the third appearance of the unforgiving repeated note, the music gives way to a stark, unadorned folk tune, played in one hand of the piano. It is a kind of hurdy-gurdy, eerily tracing a melody which sits in an uncomfortable place between major and minor. The quartet unfurls a set of variations on top of it, finally coming to rest on a soft major cadence; the piano repeats the passacaglia theme alone. We are left in a barren landscape, a wasteland of remembering. The dead silence which followed Andsnes’ final notes paid tribute to the severity and power of the performance.
Andsnes’ and Hamelins’ brutal Rite of Spring after intermission was just icing on the cake. What the two-piano version loses in urgency (no guttural woodwind shrieks or snarling brass flare-ups), it gains in rhapsody. The music can breathe a bit better, and one can appreciate the lazy, Debussy-like haze of Stravinsky’s harmonies. Andsnes and Hamelin added depth with tiny tempo fluctuations on-the-go, impossible to achieve when steering the oil tanker that is the Rite’s massive orchestra. With the pair’s mechanical brilliance and cool control, it was a fearsome but remarkably fun ending to an incredible evening.