KATIA ET MARIELLE LABEQUE (pianofortes)
1. Prelude a la Nuit 4.52
2. Malaguena 2.00
3. Habanera 2.59
4. Feria 6.23
MA MERE L’OYE:
5. Pavane de la Belle au Bois Dormant 1.50
6. Petit Poucet 2.57
7. Laideronnette Imperatrice des Pagodes 3.34
8. Les Entretiens de la Belle et la Bete 4.17
9. Le Jardin Feerique 3.55
10. MENUET ANTIQUE 7.12
11. PAVANE POUR UNE INFANTE DEFUNTE 4.27
12. PRELUDE 1.56
13. BOLERO 15.08
If you’re dissatisfied, for whatever reason, with recording under the dictates of an established label: you might want to branch out into new stylistic avenues as an adjunct to your standard performance repertoire, or you might feel frustrated by not being able to go over and over certain works – with someone always trying to hurry you along – until you’ve reached what you feel to be the definitive interpretation. There could be any number of motivational factors urging you to take some form of action but if you feel strongly enough…set up your own recording company! Imagine it. You would have complete freedom (and a somewhat depleted bank balance). But you have faith in what you doing. Katia and Marielle Labeque imagined it and they liked the notion sufficiently to take action: they started their own label.
But theirs was not a complete leap into the unknown. It was more an ‘in focus’ risk because as a professional touring two piano ensemble, they knew they always had, and will continue to have, wide public appeal. The public are attracted to them for several reasons: the medium itself is immediately accessible, powerful and its historical literature has an unusually high number of quality works, and, most importantly, Katia and Marielle Labeque are very adept at what they do. And while they may not be as robust or full-bodied in their interpretations as are some professional two piano duos, they have a stylishness and virtuosity that can be quite mesmerising.
It comes as little surprise to find this, the first disc under their own label, devoted entirely to the music of Ravel. A further skein is added to the disc’s colouring by highlighting a somewhat tenuous Basque connection (Ravel was born there and spent his first three months of life there, and the Labeque sisters, as mentioned on the leaflet, spent their early childhood there). Whether the connection is strong enough to support a transcription of ‘Bolero’ with traditional Basque instruments accompanying the two pianos, is something we will discuss later. At this juncture it is more consequential to suggest Ravel never wholeheartedly embraced any philosophical/aesthetic construction, be it jazz, Basque music or old dance suite forms. He tended to use traits superficially (and there is much to be said for ‘suggesting’ rather than ‘portraying’) as he felt necessary. Whether these ‘suggestions’ are sometimes used to mask structural flaws…well, that’s a different proposition.
Nevertheless, it is true that Ravel often treats promising ideas (i.e. ideas which beckon development) as rigidly fixed gestures that are repeated, to give a surface sense of unity, but not allowed to evolve. Oddly, it is at such times – when the composer relies on repetition rather than development – that these pianists display one their finest qualities: their ability to tincture, through varying the phrasing, finger pressure etc, numerous repetitions. A perfect example of this is evinced in the very first item on the disc. ‘Prelude a la Nuit’, from ‘Rhapsodie Espagnole’ (consisting of four pieces) is little more than an iterated descending four note scalar pattern and a few swirls of colour. In other words, on paper, or in the hands of lesser pianists, the music lacks depth and any perception of melodic growth. Yet these performers manage to turn it into a process of evocation, through their excellent choice of dynamics, softness of touch and astute pedalling. They turn the mundane into the atmospheric.
The downward four note scale appears later in the ‘Rhapsodie’ but even when the composer accelerates the speed of its series in ‘Feria’, the final piece of the bracket, it is as if he is saying: “At the beginning you thought I was going to take this idea somewhere…great idea…but I couldn’t think what to do with it”. This is nothing like Debussy’s use of, for example, the cor anglais gesture in ‘Nuages’. This composer has a deliberate structural purpose for it: to punctuate the texture momentarily. Debussy understands that to immediately repeat something gives rise to an expectation of progression. Moreover, he wouldn’t, as Ravel does, make a distinct reference to another style (jazz, in the case of ‘Feria’) and be content not to explore its possibilities. But because Ravel is happy to do so he unwittingly places the onus heavily on the shoulders of the pianists. Katia and Marielle Labeque show considerable insight into trying to find a way to resolve this critical issue in Ravel’s music.
But not even a duo of their skill and sensitivity can salvage ‘Habanera’. If, at the time of writing this piece, Ravel had thought ahead to the little jazz references he would be using in ‘Feria’ he would have seen this was the perfect time to fully explore them. Moreover, using the jazz references as the basis of ‘Habanera’ and reminding the listener of them in ‘Feria’ would have created much stronger internal cohesion. But he didn’t. The listener of ‘Habanera’ gets nothing more than a meandering. It is as if an orchestra is tuning-up backstage – snatches of the Habanera rhythm, a few runs, lots of repeated single notes – without any intention of going onstage to perform a full Habanera. The listener should compare Bizet’s use of habanera in ‘Carmen’, as clichéd as it now is, to Ravel’s desultory treatment of it in ‘Rhapsodie Espagnole’. The former makes full use of the style and character but the latter leaves it stone-cold. On this disc, the performers try everything to breathe life into the piece but to little avail.
As a pianist, one is always at odds with Ravel because he writes so beautifully, so instinctively, so stylishly and evocatively for the instrument. But as a composer, one is constantly frustrated by his lack of architectural discipline and his willingness to rely on gesture rather than substance. When is he lucky enough to find a form, as he does in ‘Bolero’, where gesture is transformed into substance – something that is normally quite alien to the composer – and combines this with a phenomenal gift for orchestration, he manages to produce a dynamic and living piece of music. But, for the most part, his music is all about projecting style.
In ‘Ma Mere l’Oye’, a work that is perhaps over-exposed, he again allows style, more than any other aspect, to weave the fabric. Except, here, there is also a storyline (‘The Ugly Duckling’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ et al) to guide the listener’s imagination. And it works: which is why it is a classic. There are plenty of colour (timbre) changes within the style and the hues balance each other convincingly. Whether we admire the performers’ sense of dynamic shading in ‘Pavane de la Belle au Bois Dormant’, linear clarity in ‘Petit Poucet’, lovely sense of atmosphere in ‘Laideronnette Imperatrice des Pagodes’ (where, incidentally, I didn’t realise the composer had indicated to hold the sustaining pedal for this long at the conclusion: nice touch), dramatic feel for ‘edge’ or tension in ‘Les Entretiens de la Belle et la Bete’, or their ability to measure the point of true climax in ‘Le Jardin Feerique’; we end up with a rendition that is every bit as stylish as the music it portrays. Sometimes it lacks the characteristic Labeque fieriness but, in the scheme of things, this a well-round and insightful performance.
The three works which follow ‘The Mother Goose Suite’ – ‘Menuet Antique’, ‘Pavane pour une Infante Defunte’ and ‘Prelude’ – are more like dream sequences than solid musical statements. The ‘Menuet’, for example, in spite of Ravel’s professed love of old dance suite forms, only has snippets to suggest antiquity – just enough to give the mind something upon which to peg an image – and the rest is atmosphere created from an intimate knowledge of the keyboard. The “Pavane’, particularly if the story is correct, is very sensitive but to the point of hypersensitivity. And without wanting to appear unduly cynical or unsympathetic, it should be noted that hypersensitivity is more an aristocratic sensibility. I know nothing of the ‘Prelude’ – when or why it was written – except it is a vapid piece of writing. The pianists do the very best they can with the material at hand but, even after their nicely tessellated account of the ‘Pavane’, there is no material here to work with. What can they do? Perhaps they could have devised a different program?
Whatever the case, the main thrust of the disc is a transcription of ‘Bolero’. I should state, from the outset, I have no particular ‘angst’ in respect to transcribing this music to two pianos and Basque instruments. Ravel certainly didn’t experience qualms when he transcribed Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’, which is deservedly used in orchestration classes, so he could hardly point an accusatory finger when the situation is, more or less, reversed. Not that that alone justifies it. Everything depends on the transcriber, and the performers, being able to shed new light on the music.
This transcription succeeds because it does just that. We are given an insight into the fabric of the existing music and, simultaneously, welcome a new addition to the repertoire. Whether or not future performances should involve Basque instruments is debatable because the Basque connection is somewhat superficial, or at least it doesn’t appear to be of critical importance to Ravel. If one accepts the notion of transcribing the music and one wants to lend it a Basque colouring, then something, other than a piano (for practical reasons) or a snare drum (which is used in the original) needs to carry the omnipresent rhythmic pattern. The atabal seems the obvious choice, given the criterion. Nothing can quite replace the E-flat clarinet or saxophone entries – moments of orchestral magic – but then transcribing is all about finding compromises.
Aurally judged, this account of ‘Bolero’ sounds tigerishly difficult and in a live concert performance it would constitute a huge risk. In recording though, undertaken within a controlled environment, the result is intoxicative. Moreover, there is no race to the work’s climax because the pianists have left themselves room to manoeuvre by not over stressing subsidiary high points.
It is the inclusion of ‘Bolero’ that lifts this disc out of the ordinary. One wonders if Katia and Marielle Labeque are pointing out a new direction for the future of the two piano literature: good and justifiable transcriptions. Imagine what could be done with ‘Gaspard de la Nuit’? ‘Daphnis et Chloe’?
Stuart Hille 2009.