Aug 2nd 2017

Piano history: The legacy of the Labèque sisters

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

Katia and Marielle Labèque -- the glamorous French keyboard siblings -- have achieved a solid legacy of exuberant performances in the two-piano repertoire, ranging from experimental contemporary works to traditional classical-romantic composers. Now in their 60s, they have published the first account of their rise to stardom. Every pianist should read this book.

I first heard the Labèques three years ago in the Bordeaux Auditorium. I was sitting among the grey-haired subscription customers, most of whom who seemed befuddled, unsure what was going on. The sisters were doing their “Minimalist Dream House” show that they had taken on the road after a successful opening in Paris. The program included works by John Cage, Terry Riley, Radiohead, Arvo Pärt, Brian Eno, Philip Glass, Glenn Branca and others. Surprisingly, only five or six of the seniors walked out.

To me, it was a stunning night, with Katia dramatically bouncing on the bench, stomping her little feet, and flinging her arms and head about, the more conservative Marielle sitting stiff-backed at her facing piano, and a handful of percussionists having a field day.

The sisters’ contrasting styles both in behavior and in music-making renders them all the more interesting. These two are not twins.

After more than 45 years onstage together, the Labèques are accepted as the modern standard for two-piano performance, “a distinction that is not contested”, writes their biographer Renaud Machart in his new book Katia et Marielle Labèque : Une vie à quatre mains (Buchet et Castel). This fascinating book, a collection of question-and-answer dialogues, has not yet been translated into English but no doubt will be. 

Machart, a music writer for the Paris newspaper Le Monde, describes his own change-of-heart regarding the Labèques. “I was suspicious (at first) of their glamour, their chic, their publicity, their carefully posed photos.” He found Katia’s uncontrolled gestures during performance “irritating”, in contrast to her reserved and almost somber younger sister. He once referred to them in print as “irresponsible and without interest”.

But a few years later he attended another recital and changed his mind. “These two musicians played damned well,” he recalled – “Debussy, Stravinsky, Bernstein, “all perfectly coordinated and in tune with each other”.

This video demonstrates their keyboard mastery in an excerpt from Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”. Katia throws herself at the music.

Machart telephoned his section editor at Le Monde and asked for space in the next edition. In his critique, he wrote that the sisters’ playing was “magnificent and touching”, noting that they “rarely look at each other (across their Steinways) but they play in the same breath and mostly from memory. The synchronization of their playing is unique.”

He sought them out after the performance and conducted a two-hour interview, at which he learned for the first time that they had spent more than ten years concentrating on contemporary music. Leaving the interview, he remembers tossing off a comment on how interesting they were. “We should record our talks and publish them book form,” he said. From that moment on, he virtually stalked them, continuing the interview in France and abroad. He caught up with them in London, Rome and Paris.

Their repertoire has broadened over the years, encompassing the baroque, classical and romantic besides a love of contemporary compositions. Dissonance and percussive playing seems to suit them. The Bartok “Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion” is now one of their signature works.

In this video, the excitement is palpable and the contrasting styles of the two sisters is evident.

In the piano world, there is a cleavage between two-piano artists and those who play four-hand pieces on a single keyboard. Another pair of sisters, the flamboyant Khatia Buniatishvili and her sister Gvantsa have stuck with four-hand repertoire despite its harder sell in concert halls than two-piano works.

The Q and A format lends itself to this story, for it offers the sisters the opportunity to describe their difficulties and triumphs in their own words, provoked by Machart’s expert inquisition. They met together or separately, and when meetings were impossible because of their heavy performance schedule, they spoke by phone or by email. The manuscript is based then on these talks plus hundreds of messages flying around the world.

Emerging from their conversational style is a story told “perhaps undiplomatically but never in anger”. Machart concludes that the sisters remain uncomplicated, available to their fans – whether in Avignon or Tokyo – despite all their glory. “What I wanted to accomplish in these interviews was a look back at their long career, with honesty and lucidity. These spirited women still have the aura of the ‘little Labèques’, and have never  lost what (the late writer and critic) Paul Léautaud called ‘the happiness of high spirits”. 

_____________________________

 

Edited excerpts from their conversations:

BEGINNINGS

During our four years (of Paris Conservatory training) our mother traveled from Hendaye every week by train on Thursday nights, an interminable trip in second-class seating, bringing us food she bought in Spain to save money, and she returned home every Sunday evening.

It’s best to speak frankly. Conservatory professor (the late Lucette Descaves) did not leave an undying impression on us. She always arrived late and left early. Her friends would attend our classes and they chattered among themselves as we played … (Thus we had) a professor who was always distracted and who only liked boy students. Lucette Descaves never demonstrated her own playing. I never heard her play during our classes.

PERFORMANCE STYLE

Katia: Each time we play (Berio’s Concerto), I end up with bruises on my hands because of the clusters he writes. Maybe it’s quality or a defect, but when I take on something, I go all the way. Physically it’s very trying … I think I have always been like that. Of course it depends on the kind of repertoire. In contemporary music I often let myself go, but I wouldn’t do that playing Schubert’s “Fantaisie”.

I play with my entire body – my back, my shoulders, my legs, my feet. Every note is important so I am always totally involved physically. But I am never “outside the instrument” – that is a different technique, and not mine. It’s more for men than women… But I never thought that playing straight as a ramrod was the most natural way to handle the instrument either. I like to have a physical relationship with my instrument so that it becomes an extension of myself … Our way is a certain combination of my lightness and Marielle’s gravitas. For this reason, she always chooses to play the bass part. Even her voice is lower than mine!

TRAVEL

Marielle: I don’t think I could ever live in one place. I love Rome, London, and Vienna – Vienna, a marvelous city where I feel good, whether I am with Katia or accompanying my husband Semyon Bychkov, who frequently conducts the Vienna Philharmonic or the Opera.

FOUR-HANDS 

Katia says in one Q and A entry: In a performance of "The Rite of Spring" by Michael Tilson Thomas and Leonard Bernstein, "there are some wrong notes – anyway it’s unplayable for four hands – but you can hear in their way of playing that these two conductor-pianists had deep understanding of the work. They both knew Stravinsky personally. They manage to create on the keyboard the feeling of the full orchestra. It’s extraordinary!”

NEIGHBORS

It’s not possible to put two Steinway Model Ds together in a tight space. And you have to soundproof the room or have no neighbors. When we lived in London in 1987 our neighbor was Dirk Bogarde who protested at the least sound, and in the most odious manner.

MESSIAEN

“Once as we were working on “Visions de l’Amen” at the Conservatory, someone poked his head around the corner – it was Olivier Messiaen… After listening to us, he said he wanted to rerecord the piece (superseding his recording of 1941). Would one of us be able to play it with his wife Yvonne Loriod? We refused, to avoid being separated, and finally Messiaen relented …” (The Labèque recording is still available in a collection of Messiaen works and it is chilling, ethereal and altogether of a supernatural beauty.)

(We place our pianos face-to-face) because we have never felt the need to see each others’ hands in order to stay together. Only Olivier Messiaen asked us to move the pianos side-by-side to record his “Visions de l’Amen” because that is how he always played it with his wife Yvonne Loriod.

LUCIANO BERIO

Marielle: I remember that when recording the “Concerto pour deux pianos” by Luciano Berio at La Scala in Milan, Luciano asked if Katia could be heard grunting. I confirmed it to him. “We must absolutely keep that in,” he said.

The drama of the Berio piece is clear in this video, although the grunting seems drowned out by the music.

INTERPRETATION

We are not the product of a “school” of piano playing. We learned everything on our own. Resisting “schools” or pianism helps build up courage and imagination. If you can do it right, you end up with your own language and you move through life more independently. What we have learned comes not from institutions or structures but from the extraordinary people we have encountered during our artistic life and with whom we have spent a lot of time – like Luciano Berio. Luciano has composed pieces for us and has become a family friend.

REPERTOIRE

With few exceptions, we have always chosen to play music that we like. It is our way of being honest and sincere. A lot of people have been willing to advise us but when we walk out on stage we are alone and we must believe deeply in the music we are playing … Romantic music is not our favorite – it doesn’t lend itself to the two-piano format. The whole problem is achieving rubato between two players, and rubato is the essence of this music – it is omnipresent in Chopin and Liszt. This is probably the reason they hardly wrote anything for two pianos. The players lose their freedom to improvise their rubato. It must be combined and fixed to always be together, and so it can become mechanical and too predictable.

POETIC BOULEZ

Pierre Boulez was always very available, very open … In fact, some might find it surprising that this composer of the two-piano piece “Structures” was always very poetic in his observations. He would say things like, “Here, it’s a bit like flowers blooming.” Or, “There, the color changes.” (Boulez’s music) was not the most obvious door-opener for a career, but we did not think in those terms... And if it gave us the image of “intellectuals” and deprived us of a vast public, too bad.

THE GERSHWIN TRAP

Few people realize that the orchestration of Rhapsody in Blue was not by Gershwin but the two-piano version was the original, written by his own hand. Certain people thought – and perhaps still think -- we had become traitors to the cause of avant-garde music, Messiaen, Boulez, Berio, Ligeti, etc. -- that we played so much when we began. It was as if we were being criticized for bringing “popular” sentiments to classical concerts. (Their recording on vinyl LPs sold more than 100,000 copies.) Our support from “intellectuals” was less and less, and certain journalists wrote less or nothing at all about us after that. Even some of our friends were sort of gritting their teeth over it. But the success opened numerous doors, and it’s still part of our repertoire that we love.

In this version, their connection with Gershwin is obvious.



For Katia and Marielle Labèque's Official Site, please click here.




To subscribe to Facts and Arts' weekly newsletter, please click here.

To follow Facts & Arts' Editor, Olli Raade, on Twitter, please click here.

If you have something to say that you want to say on Facts & Arts, please

Write to the Editor, or write a comment in the comments section.

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Music Reviews

Jul 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "In A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and subsequent films, Morricone opted for an unprecedented fusion of archaic-sounding lines in the melody, reminiscent of medieval modal music. He intermixed this sound with contemporary pop touches (the Fender electric guitar), wordless choirs, unusual instruments (Jew’s harp, ocarinas, mariachi trumpets…) and ambient sounds (whip cracks, whistles, gunshot, coyote’s howls). He also infused scores with his trademark humour. This can be heard in the comedy western Il Mio Nome è Nessuno (My Name is Nobody, Tonino Valerii, 1973) where a toy trumpet toots bits of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries."
Jul 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: Are you collaborating with living composers? Answer: Yes, Scott Wollschleger sends me unfinished new works every month. Keeril Makan is working on a piano concerto. Melaine Dalibert has dedicated several recent works to me. There are more names on the horizon. But these are the three where I feel I can have a big impact on their careers, and all three write music that I feel born to play. That combination of things is important to me."
Jun 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: How do you see your musical mission today? Answer: My real passion in music is to resist popularity rankings and market forces. In my view, these currents impoverish our cultural richness........."
May 1st 2020
EXTRACT: Alessandro Deljavan: "I bought a former convent 40 kilometers from Pescara, in Villamagna. It's very important for me to breathe clean air and live as simply as possible. Life in a giant city full of cars and smog is hard for me to imagine. My perspective is always to live fully. My aspirations for the best musical experiences guides my decisions and over the past several years I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with some wonderful musicians—these experiences have brought me a sense of optimism for what might lie ahead.”
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Federico Mompou, the reclusive Catalonian composer whose calm, spare piano writing is currently enjoying a rebirth, might well look askance at any effort to pull him forward into modern mode. Such was never his genre but that’s precisely what one of his ardent admirers, pianist Maria Canyigueral, proposed to do. The result is her intriguing new CD, Avant-guarding Mompou."
Mar 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "In our interview, Prof. Réach says he cautions his students in Barcelona to approach the Variations with care, warning them “the path will be long and will require great patience”. He has personally overcome his fear of this “masterpiece of masterpieces”, having recorded them three times and performed them in about 15 countries a total of about 150 times."
Mar 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "The 88-key piano looks headed for a major transformation in the coming decades. The mechanism under the lid is based on a 130-year-old design and many specialists believe it is time to dispense with those delicate moving parts.  As innovative Australian piano builder Wayne Stuart says, “The piano has been crying out for a rethink for over a hundred years.” "
Mar 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: You have a Paris background. What do you bring to Granados to ensure Spanish flavor? Delicacy? Momentum? Singing and dancing undertones? Rubato?........Answer: First, I am profoundly European........."
Feb 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: You have said that you are plagued by doubts. Is this true?.........Answer: Of course I am plagued by doubts. This is part of the artist’s life. But I continue to work and perform. I have moments of depression but I try to transform these doubts into positives. Many artists have these doubts. Some don’t talk about it. But doubt is always there."
Jan 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "QUESTION: Wouldn’t young composers of today benefit from aligning themselves with a philosophical ethos in order to find their musical voice -- as opposed to trying merely to find their own voice by drawing on imagination or personal experience?.......... ANSWER: It’s an interesting question, but open to interpretation. My impulse is to answer yes. When young I did a tremendous amount of reading in the history of aesthetics, and as a result my sense of artist -- ethos, necessity, whatever -- is not limited to post-WWII influences. One result is that I’ve never had any patience for the late-20th-century idea that art is about “personal expression.” The ancient and more enduring view is that the artist expresses what is out there to be expressed. As T.S. Eliot admirably wrote, art is an escape from personality, not an expression of it. Likewise I’ve never warmed to the idea of “finding one’s voice,” which sounds to me too much like creating an instantly recognizable trademark style that will make your music easier to market commercially."
Jan 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "It has been a long journey I enjoy re-living as I take note this year of the great Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday. As a practicing music critic and journalist from American corn country, I call myself a hick hack but I experience meltdown at almost everything the great man wrote. How can one not love Beethoven?"
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Judith Juaregui, based in Madrid but peripatetic in her concertizing around Europe, is gaining an international audience of admirers, boosted by the brilliant pianistic colors of her Debussy, Liszt, Falla, Chopin and Mompou in her fifth CD, “Pour le Tombeau de Claude Debussy”, just out. This album was recorded at a recital in Vienna last year, her first foray into live recording, and she is  rather pleased with the result, which, she says in our interview (below), captured a “moment of honesty”. She left everything in, including the vigorous applause from the audience."
Dec 11th 2019
EXTRACTS: "The young tousle-haired pianist from the distant Minnesota, Reed Tetzloff, is building a performance career in the U.S. and Europe by steering a course through rare repertoire that is both challenging and attractive for the listener........In our email question-and-answer discussion he explains his priorities as a musician and his attraction to a wide range of repertoire."
Dec 9th 2019
Extract: "Then the house lights came up and the rest of us rushed out, relieved that it was all over."
Nov 15th 2019
Extract: "Question: Mompou was modest, yet one of his famous comments is similar to Handel’s remark that he was writing down what God dictated. Mompou said he did not think up music, he simply transmitted it. Answer: The Mompou’s idea about God was interesting. God was a great force that also could destroy his own creation, like a child who in a moment of joy treads on an ant without noticing. Mompou explained that, in his case, the music was not coming from inside to outside, but the opposite way, from outside to the inside, with him being the intermediary of this flow, as a kind of medium. Mompou felt embarrassed to be called on stage after a performance of his music. He was convinced that if the work was really good, it was not entirely created by himself. 
Oct 27th 2019
Composer Kyle Gann’s new book ‘The Arithmetic of Listening’ analyzes microtonality and makes a plea for the music fraternity to open its ears to the new directions possible. After 22 years of teaching at Bard College in the eastern United States, Gann has become a guru or godfather of new music, and continues to produce captivating compositions, as in his new two-CD album ‘Hyperchromatica’. His latest book analyzes and explains tuning theory. In this interview he asserts that new music that gets the attention of publishers and producers today is mostly “derivative crap”. The golden age of “downtown” music from 1960 to 2000 assembled “a bunch of escapees from the twin hells of academia and corporate commercialism”.
Oct 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "A powerful new talent from Italy, Alessandro Deljavan, made his U.S. East Coast debut October 19, with a magnificent reading of the Brahms Piano concerto No. 2 under conductor Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra."
Sep 18th 2019
EXTRACT: "This is some of Ilic’s best work. A California native of Serbian extraction, he is emerging now as a major player in a crowded field."
Sep 8th 2019
Extract: "Chopin’s two piano concertos are among the most frequently recorded of 19th century works, both for their melodic charm, their pulsing rhythms and their historical significance. Young Chopin wrote the piano part with exceptional verve, showing the way for future composers to let the piano burst free from its orchestral surroundings."
Sep 8th 2019
Extract: "David Fray looked surprisingly alert when he arrived for a 7:30 a.m. breakfast interview at a comfortable inn outside of La Roque d’Anthéron in the south of France. We had both been at a midnight dinner following his performance at the famous piano festival. I left the dinner early with a colleague but he stayed till 3:00 chatting and laughing with the violinist he had just performed with, his friend Renaud Capuçon. Their Bach sonatas and a Bach piano concerto were the highlights of the evening. Over breakfast (David ate a bowl of chocolate-flavored cereal sweetened with ample spoonfuls of Nutella) we indulged a few minutes of smalltalk, then got down to business. He responded lucidly in French to some heavy questioning. He only stumbled once, at the end, when I asked him,  “What does music really mean to you?” His reply, ”That’s a big subject for so early in the morning!” But he continued searching for the words, and he found them."