December 16, 2007
"Best record of the year"
Throughout the years, I've listened to countless readings of Ravel's ethereal fairy tale piano suite for four hands, "Ma Mere L'Oye." None of them matches the stunning beauty of the version included in this definitive disc.
Classical CD of the week
For their first album on their own label, the Labèque sisters return to Ravel – specifically, in the Rapsodie Espagnole and Boléro, to their roots in the region of France closest to Spain. The Rapsodie is perhaps Ravel’s best-known work for two pianos, and they play Boléro in a two-piano version made by Ravel, but adapted by themselves and the Basque composer Michel Sendrez to include Basque sounds: the atabal, a small drum; the txepetsxa, a tiny instrument, made out of a walnut shell, that imitates the sound of a wren; and a ttun-ttun, a drum with “sympathetic” strings. The arrangement works well, and these Iberian-inspired works frame a programme chosen to show off the permutations of the sisters’ double act: Marielle plays the Menuet antique, Katia the rarely heard solo Prélude, and they unite at one keyboard for the Mother Goose Suite – a performance of brilliance, especially in the Tom Thumb and Empress of the Pagodas movements – and a four-hands arrangement of Pavane pour une infante défunte. The Labèques’ experience in this repertoire is second to none today, and they launch their label with panache.
KML Recordings,the first offering is core classical, a Ravel recital, and it’s spectacular. Nothing unusual in the repertoire, true. But the slant they take, the vivid performances and the recording’s generous halo put this CD on a shelf apart. The recital takes a trip to the Labèques’ childhood, to the folk rhythms of the Basque country where both they and Ravel were born. Baby Ravel left for Parisafter three months, but the Labèques find the Basque residue everywhere. Take the farandole’s kicking rhythms in the Rhapsodie Espagnole,or the Dionysian overkill of Ravel’s two-piano version of Boléro, enlarged with Basque percussion instruments here.
Whether charging ahead or limpidly languishing, pianissimo, the Labèques provide a remarkable range of colours. Clattering at high speed, they still give us a rainbow (try the Rhapsodie’s fandango); while for quiet kaleidoscopic beauty, nothing tops their fairy garden in the Mother Goose suite. Aside from the colours, note as well the duo’s intuitive, sisterly feeling for interplay and ensemble. They can tease rhythms, coordination and each other without once derailing Ravel’s progress.
Good times easily dominate; and as their very slow-burn Boléro mounts, with exotic instruments of wood, steel and skin rising from whispers to giant thumps, you want to roll out the red carpet. Welcome back, Katia and Marielle. Where have you been?
Such are the charms of this sister-and-sister piano duo playing the music of their countryman that the disc, the first on their own label, is almost irresistible. Thinking and breathing as one, they bend phrases and stretch them to their most expressive points. When they rein in that expression, they do it with the same unanimity.
So much for the purely technical values. They spice up Boléro with authentic Basque percussion instruments drumming out the hypnotic repeating figure. The indigenous instruments heighten the folk quality of the work, returning it to the dusty streets of the original dance, and even if you chip a tooth on the drums’ names (txepetxa? txalparta?), their buzzing and hollow pounding won’t be mistaken. Thierry Biscary, a Basque percussionist, and Gustavo Cimeno of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra play those instruments, and the Labèque sisters match them in intensity.
As the Labèque sisters move closer to Boléro, which closes the album, they play a handful of Ravel’s most popular works, including Rapsodie Espagnole and Ma mére l’oye (Mother Goose) with exquisite care. The five movements of Ma mére l’oye are scrubbed free of any extra sentimentality or cloying sweetness (no mean feat), and the finale (“The Fairy Garden”) positively soars to its end.
Each sister gets a solo piece to herself, but they shine most brightly when turning in a four-hands version of Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess). Their minute shifts of color would make Monet start over on his lily pads.
This is the Labèque sisters´ first release on their own label, for which they have gone back to the Basque roots they share with Ravel to explore some of his Iberian inspirations in versions for one and two pianos. Most intriguing here is the Labèques´ own adaptation of Boléro for two pianos and an interesting array of Basque percussion: you don´t miss the multifarious colours of Ravel´s original orchestration at all.
But there is also fresh and lively playing in Ravel´s own four-hand versions of the Rhapsodie espagnole and Mother Goose, as well as a sensitive account of the perennial Pavane.
The first disc to be released by Katia and Marielle Labèque on their KML label sees them returning to the Basque roots that they share with Ravel. Full of their customary sparkle, the Labèques make you sit-up and take notice. In their hands, the ‘Feria’ of the Rhapsodie Espagnole is a dazzling whirligig that leaves the orchestral version sounding rather tame by comparison.