Once upon a time, when you had to make music if you wanted to hear it, playing on two pianos was a social entertainment, a kind of drawing-room conversation between friends. Today, the emphasis is on passive listening rather than active participation, and two-piano recitals have become increasingly virtuosic. You’re not going to hear it done at a higher level than the Strathmore audience got on Monday night, when the pianists Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-Andre Hamelin, each a draw in his own right, brought their two-piano show, a highlight of the season at several venues around the country, to Washington Performing Arts. And they opened with an evocation of the duo-piano team’s social past: a reconstruction of an unfinished Mozart Larghetto and Allegro, begun in 1781, brought to gleaming heights of pellucid decorum with Andnes’s singing lines against Hamelin’s darker foundations.
Washington has been lucky enough to see several striking duo-piano recitals this year. Anderson and Roe, a burgeoning young team honing a two-person act for the 21st century, played at the National Gallery in the fall; at the Phillips in February, Dennis Russell Davies and Maki Namekawa offered a dialogue between husband and wife, with a kind of homespun intimacy. Andsnes and Hamelin offered the equivalent of a Grand Slam tennis match – not in the sense of a rivalry, but in the sense of a meeting of two champions at the top of their game, each pushing the other to do their best — Andsnes slightly more lyrical, Hamelin slightly more percussive — and locking into wonderful interchanges, like the shock in “Avec Emportement,” the first movement of Debussy’s “En blanc et noir,” when Andsnes started an upward run on his keyboard and Hamelin locked in and caught it on the other side of the stage.
The Debussy, opening with the exhilarating rush of a river of Champagne, and continuing through a whole range of moods and allusions, was the highlight of the night. But Stravinsky was its main focus, with his quirky concerto for two pianos, angular and jazzy and appealing, and, after intermission, the two-piano version of “The Rite of Spring” – which happens to have been a feature of both the other abovementioned duo-piano recitals. Andsnes and Hamelin made things easier for themselves by using two pianos, rather than entwining themselves in the four-hand, one-keyboard variant used in both the other concerts, emphasizing the formality of a give-and-take that brought out every facet of the score and built to monumental heights without completely losing itself in emotional abandon. Even with the formality, though, there was an intimacy to the interaction of two crack musicians at work, which they crowned with an encore, Stravinsky’s “Circus Polka.” Let’s hope they continue their collaboration.