An Impressive Pianistic Potpourri from the Labèque Sisters

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Diverse Composers: Katia and Marielle Labèque (piano), St John’s Smith Square, London, 28.4.2016. (GD)

Tchaikovsky,  Russian Dance from Swan Lake arr. Debussy for two pianos
Robert Schumann, Pieces for children big and small: No.2 Bear’s dance, No.3 Garden melody, No.11 Ghost story.
Johann Strauss II and Josef Strauss, Pizzicato-Polka
Johann Strauss II, Auf der Jagd, Op, 373
Dvořák, Slavonic Dances: Op.72 No.2 in G minor  Op. 46 No,.8 in G minor
Brahms, Hungarian Dances:  No1 in G minor No. 20 in E minor No.5 in F sharp minor
Bizet, Petit mari, petite femme from Jeux d’enfants
Fauré, Berceuse from Dolly Suite
Satie, ‘What’s more calm’  Three pieces in the form of a pear
Stravinsky, from Easy Pieces for piano, four hands Waltz, Polka, Galop
Poulenc, L’embarquement pour Cythère – valse-musset
Milhaud, Brasileira from Scaramouche, Op.165bm
Percy Grainger, Country Gardens
Gershwin, Three Preludes  arr. Irwin Kostal
Lutoslawski,  Variations on a theme by Paganini

The original programme for this concert was to have included Mozart’s great  D major Bravura Sonata for four hands K 448, Schubert’s hauntingly poetic Sonata in F minor, 940, also for four-hands, and end with the sisters’ two piano arrangement of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps quite a concert!! So I was initially disappointed when i found that the concert had been totally changed to a potpourri of miniatures or ‘lollipops’ as they used to be called. In fact, the sisters have recently recorded a CD comprising many of the pieces performed tonight which by all accounts is selling well, as with most of their CDs. But as soon as heard the Debussy two piano arrangement of the Russian Dance from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake I was captivated. The Labèque Sisters play a wonderful range of  pianistic styles (moving between two pianos, four-hands and duos on one piano) from the subtle pedal work and finesse of this Tchaikovsky arrangement to the pianistic fireworks found in some of the later works. In fact, it was in this arrangement that I realised how often French culture and Russian culture converge. Not only the preference for the French language favoured by the Russian aristocracy and pre-Revolutionary haute bourgeosie, but also in the Russian/ French Alliance formed after the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Almost all the works were well chosen (with the exception of the Percy Grainger ditty).

Robert Schumann’s Pieces for children big and small are certainly beyond the range of the pianistic skills of most chidren. The sisters captured the strange sense of motion and stasis in the ‘Bear’s Dance’, also the unheimlich tonal pianistic prisms of the ‘Ghost story’. It is surprising today to remember that no less an orchestra than the Vienna Philharmonic, at the 1939 inception of the Vienna New Year’s concert, considered Strauss waltzes too trivial for a major orchestra to play; it took conductors like Clemens Krauss to persuade them otherwise. The sisters’ piano arrangement, delineating the musical structure revealed how economically and superbly composed these waltzes are. I was particularly enchanted with the way in which they just slightly held back each initial note in the Pizzicato-Polka. Whenever I hear Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances – especially Op.72 No.2 in E minor with its simmering passion, I am always transported back to the charms of ‘Old Europe’, or at least the old European ‘Aura’ in Walter Benjamin’s terms. Katia and Marielle played these and the Brahms Hungarian Dances with all the magic and finesse one could wish for.

The Bizet and Satie excerpts, as would be expected, caught that note of authentic Frenchness with their harmonic delicacies and subtle sense of melodic contrast. But it was the Fauré Berceuse from the Dolly Suite which really caught the subtle folds of ‘innocent’ melody and gentle undulating lullaby rhythms to perfection, the reason this piece has become so popular. Katia and Marielle first played this music when they were eight and six years old, and it certainly showed. With the Stravinsky miniatures we come near to the Russia/French cross-over syndrome. Debussy loved what he heard of Stravinsky (especially the wild Russian paganism of Le Sacre). And Stravinsky used one of Debussy’s preludes as a theme for Le Sacre. Stravinsky later orchestrated these Easy Pieces for a smallish orchestra, calling them Suites for Small Orchestra. Here Katia certainly showed herself to be there more extrovert of the two with flamboyant head and body gestures, although I have seen her deploy far more animated gestures. Marielle is certainly the more introvert. But when they play together there is, as one critic put it, a ‘sibling telepathy’ which is absolutely compelling, as was the case here where the ‘carnivalesque’ kaleidoscopic thrust of the music sounded, if anything, even more powerful and exciting than the orchestral versions!

The Poulenc piece, with its evocations of a  painting by Antoine Watteau as metaphors for the voyage – taking couples to the ‘isle of love’ – with waltz inflections, was dispatched with all the ironic sexual humour of this typically French composer. And, as with the Fauré piece, there is a personal note relating to Milhaud’s Scaramouche. Milhaud composed this for a piano duo with the great Marguerite Long and the equally great Marcel Meyer. Long had taught the Labèques’ mother who was a considerably gifted pianist in her own right. So, there is a kind of genealogical musical/pianistic line here.  The Labèques , who played the Brasileira from the suite, revelled in the jazz-like rhythms related with Brasil, especially in the Samba. The jazz theme (reminiscent of Rive Gauche Parisian late-night smoky bars and jazz rhythms) carried over into  the Gershwin Three Preludes. The Labèques brought out the song element here. And their sheer delight in the jazz inflections of the Charleston and rumba, was infectious. The shifts and changes here, with an absolutely naturally moulded rubato, were all delivered with a delicious effortlessness.

The concert officially ended with Lutoslawski’s Variations on a theme of Paganini. The Labèques played this challenging piece with its complex cross-rhythm bi-tonal clusters  with a virtuosity which was, in a sense, more than mere virtuosity in the way they crossed over and contrasted the formal structural elements with the more flexible (improvisationary) elements implicit in  variation form. It was as though the sisters were saying ‘just look (hear) what we can really do!’ Actually the Lutoslawski work goes back to their earliest appearances on the concert stage. I have heard them play it several times, but each time is different from the last performance, the sign of a musicianship which is always developing, changing – never static or routine.

For the first encore the Labèques played the fourth of Philip Glass’s Four Movements for two pianos – quite a long and complex work for an encore, but making a nice balance and contrast, along with the Lutoslawski, with the relatively short duration of the pieces in main programming. Actually it is an encore the sisters play quite regularly. They explored every complexity (which includes over-lapping ostinato rounds, quasi stretto passages and a good complement of contrapuntal and harmonic complexity) with a quite staggering range of insights and contrasts.

For the second, and last encore, they played a four-hand arrangement of Ravel’s Une Barque sur l’ocean from Miroirs for piano, with its sweeping melodies, arpeggios and trills – quite amazing trills from contrasting dynamic fields. It was a thrilling and colourfully enriching way to finish an extraordinary and most enjoyable concert. I, for one, can’t wait for the Labeques’ next recital.

Geoff Diggines

1 thought on “An Impressive Pianistic Potpourri from the Labèque Sisters”

  1. The Mozart “Bravura” [?] sonata is for two pianos and the Schubert to which you refer is the Fantasie, not a sonata.


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