Thom Yorke photo copyright: Greg Williams
Katia & Marielle Labeque photo @brigittelacombe
It’s probable that much of the audience at this sold-out show bought tickets simply to gawp at Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who appears in the final half hour of the programme, but that might downplay the extraordinary celebrity of the pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque. These French sisters seem to have been a fixture on TV screens for ever, playing Mozart, Schubert or Bernstein at assorted Proms, or performing glitzy Gershwin duets on mainstream shows such as Wogan or Pebble Mill at One.
Incredibly, they’re now in their late 60s but – having worked through baroque, romantic, fin de siècle impressionism and 20th-century modernism since the 1970s – they are immersing themselves in an increasingly youthful repertoire. Their 2013 album, Minimalist Dream House, saw them playing compositions by Aphex Twin, Radiohead and Brian Eno alongside minimalist classics by the likes of Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Michael Nyman and Arvo Pärt.
Tonight’s programme serves as a sequel, with more minimalist compositions by a range of youngish composers. In places, you’re tempted to conclude that the Labèque sisters might be wasted on minimalism: getting two flamboyant technicians to play like machines is like getting Rembrandt to paint your shed. They rattle through an ultra-fast, ultra-simple miniature by Max Richter like someone cranking the rolls on a player piano at high speed.
Thankfully, there are more interesting uses of their talents, particularly seeing how they interact with the two guitarists. The National’s Bryce Dessner (who recently wrote an entire album of music for them) and Katia’s partner David Chalmin sit either side of the Labèques, playing through FX units. On Out of Shape, a simple, hypnotic piece by US composer Timo Andres, the guitars sound like extensions of the piano – each palm-muted riff or skronky blast sounds like a prepared piano. The opposite happens on a new arrangement of Caroline Shaw’s Valencia. In a piece originally written for strings, the guitars thrash out chords and play sustained lead lines while Katia and Marielle’s percussive support sound like a guitarist playing syncopated countermelodies, recalling Glenn Branca’s symphonic works for multiple electric guitars.
Much of the first half of the show resembles Radiohead’s more ambient work on Kid A or A Moon Shaped Pool – particularly the atmospheric post-rock explorations of David Chalmin’s Particule No 5 and No 6 and the shifting time-signatures and icy, FX-laden guitar figures of David Lang’s Ever-present. It links nicely with the second half, which is devoted to Yorke’s compositions. One new commission, Don’t Fear the Light, is an instrumental work in three parts: Chalmin generates grinding buzzsaw bass drones while the Labèque sisters play a series of quizzical, irregular figures which slowly become more baroque and machine-like. Yorke joins the stage to sing Gawpers, activating a synth drone that sounds like a faulty power generator, while the Labèques provide atmospheric flourishes. It’s the kind of funereal meditation that would have fitted nicely on A Moon Shaped Pool. Even better is the encore, a version of Yorke’s Suspirium, the title song for the soundtrack to Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 horror remake Suspiria. The Labèque sisters help to transform this simple waltz into a Brechtian psychodrama, with Chalmin and Dressner adding EBow guitar. It would be fascinating to hear them all record a full-length album together.
Thom Yorke has been tempted into the more refined world of contemporary classical music.
Following his acclaimed soundtrack for the horror movie Suspiria, Yorke has collaborated with French pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque on a piece co-commissioned by four European concert halls. While the programme notes made clear that Yorke wouldn’t appear in the first half, no one lingered at the bar — the Labèque sisters were a big draw in their own right.
They were accompanied by David Chalmin and The National’s Bryce Dessner, whose dual guitars initially made an odd pairing with the siblings’ Steinways that only a late-night Radio 3 listener could love. But the quartet soon settled into a surprisingly accessible performance of light and shade, during which the pair playing propulsive chords on their grand pianos tended to out-rock the scratchy, sinuous guitars.
The Labèques tackled Yorke’s composition Don’t Fear The Light during the second half,
The Radiohead frontman finally made an appearance to awkwardly accept the audience’s applause and sing on a couple of songs. Gawpers, a new one, featured a humming synth and Yorke’s otherworldly, wailing vocal. Yorke was on vocals for barely 15 minutes, though he made the most of it with a shadowy encore of Suspirium, the standout song from his soundtrack. With the Labèques accompanying him on piano, it was a genuinely spellbinding finale.
Thom Yorke has undergone a subtle transformation in the past decade. Instead of working hard to contort his ego enough to fill arenas, the 50-year-old Radiohead frontman often lets the occasion rise to him. He teases and showboats, riding out mistakes with ponytailed charm. A brave observer might suggest these changes bear the hallmarks of contentment. But, on the occasion of Yorke’s plunge into contemporary classical last night, his laidback rebirth meant little. Despite a delirious reception to his compositions, Yorke appeared stricken before the Philharmonie de Paris crowd. More than his bandmate and sometime guru Jonny Greenwood, now a celebrated composer in his own right, he resembled a Thom Yorke of another era: the vacant ghost who drifted through Radiohead’s 1998 tour doc Meeting People Is Easy.
Yorke debuted two new compositions: the 20-minute “Don’t Fear the Light” and the more songlike “Gawpers.” Performing with him was the Minimalist Dream House band, named to honor the midcentury pioneer La Monte Young. The group comprises the National’s Bryce Dessner, composer-guitarist David Chalmin, and, center stage at enormous Steinways, the electrifying pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque. With her glitter patches and sparkly-striped trousers, Katia looked like a haunted Victorian cowboy.
To start, the Minimalist Dream House band played a suite of old and new compositions. Bryce Dessner’s “Haven,” which premiered at the concert, screamed Bryce Dessner: jumpy and shrill, perilously reminiscent of John Adams, with guitars that jittered up and down arpeggios, and pianos that promised redemption. Its grand, naive sense of wonder and organized chaos perfectly suited the multicolor auditorium, where balconies squiggle around and curve upwards, lifting your gaze to boomerang-shaped panels suspended like aeroplane parts after a mid-air crash.
Yorke made his first appearance of the night a surprise. In a haze of ambient noise shards, he entered midway into Chalmin’s “Particule nº 5—Particule nº 6” wearing a casual T-shirt and blazer. Nobody breathed a word. Chalmin sang, “There must be a place where it all makes sense” as Yorke cooed in angelic counterpoint to the Labèques’ sinister swoops and trills. It took a moment to place a strange tenor in his voice, because it was the tenor of a normal backing singer. Gone was the meek, wavering angst. Instead, a clear and even falsetto. It was impressive but unnerving, like seeing your scruffy friend show up at a wedding in a tailored suit.
Act two began, and Yorke remained absent. His first composition, “Don’t Fear the Light,” was a three-part suite helmed by the Labèques. Its opening minutes, full of creeping keys and ambient gusts, failed to live up to the moment, treading too closely to the spookier tracks from his score for last year’s Suspiria remake. Then something crystallized. At first it sounded clunky, like a witchy cat sauntering across a piano. One key hammered ominously. Out of nowhere, a minor flourish scuttled free and disappeared in a dark flurry. The cat resumed its manic prowl, occasionally touching on a scatty motif I had internalized without realizing it.
For five, 10 minutes, the piece pivoted between contemporary American serialism and European gothic, then staggered back to Russian anarchy. In diabolical moments, Katia sprung back as if a spirit had lurched from the piano and thumped her hard in the shoulder. The sisters played with monstrous energy, like anxious lovers gearing up for a quarrel. There was a strange symmetry where they finished each other’s sentences—and then, with no discernible change, became engaged in different conversations altogether. It was as if one piano was the dream and the other was reality, and Yorke’s score was abruptly shaking you awake.
On the surface, the music was magnificent. But for anyone who’s followed Yorke’s trajectory through the last 25 years, it was also subconsciously familiar. So when the piece evolved further away from Radiohead’s catalog, in a sweep of Reichian hubbub and surging melody, some latent skepticism vanished. Just as brilliant was “Gawpers,” a shorter piece for which Yorke finally unleashed the voice we know. “Who put all the shit in your head?” he enquired in a tone of beleaguered majesty, conducting the pianists with metronomic flicks of his right hand. Behind him they tiptoed and lurched, alternately violent and sinister, twinkly and grotesque, before receding into silence.
Once it was over, Yorke awkwardly bowed with hands on the sisters’ backs, like somebody re-enacting a gesture he has seen done but never imagined doing. Then he walked off, scratching his neck and staring at the floor. Upon returning for an encore, he cracked a defensive joke: “Now I’m gonna do some hip-hop covers.”
Joined by Dessner and Chalmin, the band played “Suspirium,” from his Suspiria score, a charming waltz that they turned into a sensation. As Yorke surveyed the hall, the stalls rose in a standing ovation, which he had earned: On this night, for the first time in a long time, you could feasibly diagnose in him a faint itch for validation. Finally he relaxed into a boyish expression, which brought another rare image of Thom Yorke: a sweet, honest humility.