These Sisters Have Reworked the Piano Duo
AHETZE, France — “Oh, look!” mentioned the pianist Katia Labèque, pushing apart some neatly ironed garments hanging on a rack.
Behind the garments, which had been behind the boiler within the utility room of her dwelling and studio right here in French Basque Nation, was a poster promoting live shows final yr on the Philharmonie in Paris. It confirmed Katia and her sister, Marielle — each with darkish hair flowing, glamorously dressed — and listed three applications: 5 centuries of Basque music; a Stravinsky and Debussy double invoice; a night with three art-rock auteurs, Thom Yorke, Bryce Dessner and David Chalmin.
“We’re ridiculous,” mentioned Katia. “That is the one poster now we have, and it’s hidden.”
The poster suggests the wildly assorted musical pursuits of the Labèque sisters, who for over 50 years have been enjoying — and enlarging — the two-piano repertory. They’ve interpreted conventional classical and Romantic works, to sensible impact, however have additionally ventured into jazz, Baroque, modernist and experimental genres — commissioning scores, inventing tasks and testing their limits. Their newest recording, out this week, is a newly organized two-piano adaptation of Philip Glass’s opera “Les Enfants Terribles.”
“What all the time struck me with each of them is that, though they’re very completely different human beings, they each have this countless curiosity about all the pieces, not simply music,” mentioned Simon Rattle, the music director of the London Symphony Orchestra and a frequent Labèques collaborator.
Katia, 70, and Marielle, 68, have been inventing themselves since they had been youngsters. First taught by their mom, an Italian piano trainer and pupil of the famend pianist Marguerite Lengthy, the sisters moved at 11 and 13 from their hometown, Hendaye (not removed from right here), to attend the celebrated Paris Conservatory.
“They taught you the tips, however not the love of music that we discovered from our mother and father,” Marielle mentioned. “Perhaps that helped us develop our sense of independence, the need to maneuver on this planet on our personal phrases.” (The sisters, interviewed principally in French, additionally communicate fluent English, Italian and Spanish.)
They determined in opposition to the solo careers that their fiercely aggressive coaching had formed them for. “From the second we left — and it was 1968, the yr of revolution of the scholars — we mentioned, ‘Let’s do one thing possibly not so typical,’” Katia mentioned.
They determined to play collectively.
“They took a time-honored type, the double piano, which had develop into barely much less trendy, and breathed solely new life into it,” mentioned Deborah Borda, the president and chief govt of the New York Philharmonic.
Regardless of their nearly uncanny unity onstage — “it’s a thriller past sisterhood,” Mr. Rattle mentioned — the Labèques have very completely different personalities. Within the interview, Katia exuded power and enthusiasm, whereas Marielle remained calm and reflective. However they agreed that they by no means actually had a profession plan. After deciding to carry out collectively, they joined the Conservatory’s chamber music graduate class to develop their twin repertory, and labored as ensemble musicians with Félix Blaska’s dance firm.
In the future, whereas they had been engaged on Olivier Messiaen’s “Visions de l’Amen,” Messiaen, who taught composition on the Conservatory, knocked on the door. After listening for a bit, he requested if one of many sisters would file the work along with his spouse. Even then, they confirmed shocking power of function.
“We mentioned, ‘No, we’re simply beginning out and we will’t start by dividing,’” Katia recalled. However ultimately Messiaen requested them to file the work collectively, which led to encounters with the composers Gyorgy Ligeti, Pierre Boulez and Luciano Berio, whom they boldly approached, asking him to compose a piece for them. Berio prompt they offer the French premiere of his double piano concerto, which they subsequently performed all around the world.
Their worldwide breakthrough got here with a 1980 recording of “Rhapsody in Blue,” which was a finest vendor however led to some harsh criticism from components of the classical music institution.
“The live performance halls had been closed to Gershwin,” Katia mentioned. “Folks would say, ‘He isn’t a severe composer.’ The identical factor was true 30 years later, once we began to play Philip Glass.”
They had been additionally generally ribbed for his or her designer outfits and shiny picture. However Chad Smith, the chief govt of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, mentioned he beloved that the Labèques “have an entire imaginative and prescient. Lighting creates a fantastic atmosphere; garments, too. They arrive with a theatrical strategy and have proven the false narrative that it’s much less severe in case you interact within the visible.”
Through the years, they’ve pursued Baroque music, on Silbermann-model period-style pianofortes made for them and with the ensemble Il Giardino Armonico; ragtime; conventional Basque music; and jazz. Katia as soon as lived with the jazz musician John McLaughlin and performed in his band, and counts Miles Davis — who wrote two songs for her — and Billie Vacation as influences. The sisters have plunged deep into experimental terrain in “Minimalist Dream Home,” an ongoing sequence of live shows and recordings with Mr. Chalmin, who’s Katia’s accomplice, and Mr. Dessner.
“They’ve a particularly broad imaginative and prescient of what they’ll do in a live performance corridor, and so they deal with everybody with the identical respect,” mentioned Mr. Dessner, finest referred to as a member of the indie-rock band the Nationwide.
The coronavirus pandemic paused numerous their tasks. A concerto by Nico Muhly, which ought to have premiered on the New York Philharmonic in early June, is now scheduled for the Paris Philharmonie on Nov. 12; a program with Mr. Dessner and the soprano Barbara Hannigan will in all probability be pushed to 2022.
However one factor they may work on in quarantine was “Les Enfants Terribles,” organized by Mr. Glass’s longtime collaborator, Michael Riesman. In the course of the preliminary lockdown the Labèques labored individually to arrange the rating — Marielle lives together with her husband, the conductor Semyon Bychkov, about 9 miles from the home Katia and Mr. Chalmin share — however despatched recordings forwards and backwards and spoke continuously with Mr. Riesman about modifications.
“We needed extra of the story and the dramatic components,” Katia mentioned. “It was so odd that it’s a narrative of confinement.” After the lockdown restrictions had been relaxed in Could, they had been capable of apply collectively, and recorded the work within the state-of-the-art studio at Katia’s home.
“I like the best way they play Philip Glass,” mentioned Mr. Riesman. “They’ve the appropriate fashion, the appropriate strategy. They don’t overly dramatize or emote.”
Mr. Muhly mentioned, “They’re really way more concerned in all the pieces than most individuals of their stature. They electronic mail you about materials; they’re completely concerned. The rhythms of the day are organized round an unspeakably rigorous work ethic, however there’s something actually elegant about the best way they reside their lives which flows into music and meals and their prolonged household of artists.”
The sisters’ trick, in response to Katia, is their fixed want to vary and be taught. “We by no means need to depend on what we’ve executed,” she mentioned. “We’ve all the time tried to be relentlessly within the current.”
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