An intoxicating beginning with the slight sway of a pavane in wind mode. Katia and Marielle Labèque (Bayonne, 73 and 71 years old, respectively) began their recital at the Zaragoza Auditorium, last Monday the 20th, sitting side by side. They played the original version with four hands My mother, the goose, Maurice Ravel’s suite, from 1910, based on children’s stories. A composition that has accompanied these famous French pianist sisters for five decades, but that continues to evolve in their fingers.
They recorded it both in 1985 (Philips) and in 2006 (DG), always with Katia on the right side of the keyboard and Marielle on the left, and with an amazing rapport to share the pedals of the instrument. But the sound result has always been different. If in your first registration of this Pavane of Sleeping Beauty that opens the suite, they highlighted the pearly French touch that individualized each note, in the second they slightly increased the tempo to intensify the melodic line. Now her phrases rise into the air with a perfect dynamic gradation between the softness of the piano (p) that Marielle proposes and the evanescence of the pianissimo (pp) that Katia finishes.
The rest of the Ravellian suite was a prodigy of narrative fluidity and sonic plasticity. The sinuous and wavering tone, in Thumbelina, was combined with the songs of birds eating their bread crumbs. The colorful evocation of Ugly girl, empress of the Pagodas It sounded as pentatonic as it was liturgical. And the perfect rapport of each character was ideal in Beauty and the Beast Conversationfrom the evocation of the young woman with a gymnopédie even the monster’s growl in the low register. But the best came at the end, in The enchanted gardenwith a fragrant initial simplicity that leads to the overflowing intensity of a leafy orchard.
The first part concluded with a curious experiment: the suite for two pianos by Orphee, by Philip Glass, an opera that premiered last season at the Teatro Real. A longer and more elaborate arrangement by Michael Riesman than the well-known one for solo piano by Paul Barnes. And one of the three legs of the pianist sisters’ next project that can be seen in March at the Parisian Philharmonie: the suites for two pianos from Glass’s three chamber operas based on novels and films by Jean Cocteau (Orphee, La Belle et la Bête and Les Enfants Terribles) with a scenic design.
Glass’s minimalism fits well with the sound of a piano duo. It was clear, at the beginning, in that evocation of the ragtime from his first scene titled The coffee. The arrangement continued with Road, although it was not indicated in the program. And with the beautiful neo-baroque nod of Orpheus’s room or, later, with the evocative Orpheus and the princess, which allows us to remember the unforgettable love scene in Cocteau’s film with Jean Marais and María Casares. The Labèque sisters imposed a frenetic tempo, from beginning to end, that acquired symphonic overtones in The trip to the underworld. But the second half of the suite was very heavy and difficult to relate to the plot of the opera.
Something more attractive was, at the beginning of the second part, the composition The Chan, by indie rock musician but also post-minimalist composer Bryce Dessner. This is a work initially planned for a piano quartet that was arranged expressly for two pianos, in 2016, for the Labèque sisters. A series of pieces dedicated to the filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu where he evokes the botanical garden of San Miguel de Allende (Guanajuato) called El Charco del Ingenio. This is also the title of the first piece where it offers an aerial view of the park from tremolos that sounded “like water” to rhythms that seem to evoke natural phenomena. The musical language is quite eclectic and is torn between Erik Satie and John Adams. But the French pianists intensified each texture naturally. They especially elevated the penultimate piece, titled The puddle of Chanwhich alludes to the place where the spirit of the mythical guardian of the underworld lives, whose mysterious waters they masterfully portrayed.
And to finish, the Labèque opted for a safe value in their recitals: the songs from the musical West Side Story, by Leonard Bernstein, arranged for two pianos by Irwin Kostal. It was Bernstein himself who facilitated this arrangement, shortly before meeting the pianists, in 1987, and he even admitted that his recording on Sony Classical brought a “new modernity” to his music. In the Zaragoza program only five songs were indicated, although we heard seven and in a different order. They started with Something’s Comingthey continued with the riff of Jet Songbut they added the tenderness of One Hand, One Heart and the spark of I Feel Pretty before the imposing arrangement of Tonight. It was followed by the popular Maria which they elevated to the point of becoming the best of the second part with that mixture of colorful tenderness and technical preciousness. Bernstein’s party ended with America where they intensified their petenera rhythm with a more modern arrangement also by Kostal that they have recorded for DG with percussion.
But the final highlight was for Philip Glass. Katia thanked the audience in Spanish and announced the last of the Four Movements for two pianos by the American composer. This is the Glass composition that had been announced instead of the suite of Orphee on this brief Spanish tour of the Baluarte de Pamplona and the Zaragoza Auditorium, which had a first stop three weeks ago, in Córdoba, as the inauguration of the Rafael Orozco Piano Festival. And it was a worthy culmination with music much more interesting than the opera suite and where the prominence of the two French pianists is intertwined and combined in a frenetic and obsessive crescendo finale that brought out the braves from the public.
Many of us come away remembering that intoxicating beginning with Ravel in her enchanted garden, but the Labèque sisters will continue to seek new paths and expand their repertoire. Marielle clarifies this in the phrase that closes the book of conversations between both sisters with the critic Renaud Machart (Buchet-Chastel, 2016): “I am convinced that we will live a hundred years and that the best is yet to come.”
Katia and Marielle Labèque
Works by Ravel, Glass, Dessner and Bernstein.
Katia and Marielle Labèquepianos.
XXVI Cycle Great Soloists Pilar Bayona. Zaragoza Auditorium, November 20.
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