Katia and Marielle Labèque: Four Hands, Singular Harmony

Lisa Houston on March 31, 2014
Katia and Marielle Labèque
Katia and Marielle Labèque

With Passover coming, it’s tempting to use the form of the song “Dayenu” to talk about the spectacular musical partnership of Katia and Marielle Labèque. It might go something like this:

If a student of famed pianist Marguerite Long had two beautiful daughters, and taught them to play the piano and love music, it would have been enough. If those daughters had gone on to study at the Paris Conservatory, and both had won the first prize as soloists, it would have been enough. Had they gone on to work with composers Luciano Berio and Olivier Messiaen, it would have been enough. And if those two sisters had gone on to have a successful concert career, playing the great masterpieces of the four-hand repertoire, it certainly would have been enough.

But the work of the Labèque sisters, now spanning more than four decades, goes far beyond the bounds of a traditional, classical concert career, and even beyond their own, sometimes diverse, musical aspirations. With their concert schedule, they are continuing to delight audiences all over the world, as they have done since their recording of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in 1981 sold over a half million copies, to become one of the first-ever gold records in classical music in the U.S., leading to fame and popularity that included an appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

The two will bring their Gershwin prowess to Davies Symphony Hall on April 7, when San Francisco audiences will have a chance to hear that composer’s Three Preludes for Two Pianos, along with Philip Glass’ Four Movements for Two Pianos and excerpts from Bernstein’s West Side Story. With their many collaborations and projects, they are also bringing new works into being, as well as highlighting lesser-known pieces by composers living and dead. In fact, Glass is composing a concerto just for them as the work of their foundation, KML, expresses the priorities of the sisters to promote classical music among new audiences, educate children about music, and support collaboration between artists in various fields. Katia and Marielle Labèque are the kind of artists who inspire their fellow musicians and offer the world myriad onramps to new musical highways, contributing to the modern-day life of classical music in ways that give hope for a vibrant future. As their foundation website says, they are “Seeking the echo rather than the refrain and preferring discovery to repetition.”

Already this year, the sisters have performed in Bordeaux, London, Florence, and Leipzig. Fresh off the plane in Lisbon for a concert there before heading to the U.S., Katia, the older of the sisters by less than two years, took time to speak by phone with SFCV.

 What do you think is the key to your being able to enjoy such a rich, long collaboration, besides being sisters? What makes it work?


I feel privileged. It is a kind of miracle. There is no explanation for that. After spending so many years with someone you love, you travel together, you play on stage, I think music creates strong bonds together, stronger than the fact to be just sisters. I don’t know, how can I say it?, it marvels me. I find that quite amazing. I never take it for granted. One day, if we don’t get on well together, we will probably stop playing. You never know. It’s like a couple. If you get married, you never know if it’s going to be for six months, one year, or for life. It’s hard to project myself in the future, but we just do our projects together. Each project is a little bit like a child, like a baby. And I think the music is really making this kind of miracle happen.

Your “Minimal Dreamhouse” program is full of the music of the composers of the minimalist movement. What do you see as the biggest trend or mood in contemporary composition these days?

I think music creates strong bonds together, stronger than the fact to be just sisters. I don’t know, how can I say it?, it marvels me. —Katia Labèque

We always played a lot of contemporary music. We were discovered by Olivier Messiaen and we started recording his Visions de L’Amen. Through Messiaen, we met Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, all those great composers, and maybe through that we were a little bit kept away from this minimalist movement. That was really something we did not know well.

You said once that you personally didn’t love Satie, but that now you do. So how do your tastes change, and how do you deal with the differences with your sister? [At this point Katia beckons Marielle, who, courtesy of Skype, waves “Bon soir!”]

It’s true that we’re both very different, and maybe she represents more the classical aspect, but all the pieces in this program, she chose them. At the beginning she said, “OK, we’ll see; I’m not sure if I’m part of it or not part of it.” So, I left a few scores on the piano, and she came back and said, “I like this one,” by Howard Skempton. He is a living composer, in England. In a way, what Skempton did was very courageous, because in a moment when people like Boulez, like Stockhausen, like Berio were writing a lot of very complicated, demanding music, he went back totally the opposite way and he’s writing music closer to Eric Satie than anyone would write today — very minimal.

And so maybe, if I have to say what has changed in our taste in so many years, maybe we are not so much interested anymore about the virtuosic aspect of the piano. It’s still fun to play loud and fast. But it is not our main preoccupation, as it was when we were teenagers. When you grow up and you know you’re going to be able to do that, it’s so exciting to abuse this virtuosic aspect of the music. Now, we’re not interested at all. We will do pieces where virtuosity is demanded by the composer, but we are not interested in only virtuosic pieces.

What were some of the lessons you learned from working with Messiaen [who died in 1992]?

Alors, I will tell you immediately; the first thing is, he was always able to change and adapt. Luciano Berio was the same. You would say, “Luciano, this part, it’s really too slow, or it’s too fast” and he would say, “Oh, you think so? Let’s change it.” They’re always ready [to accommodate performing artists], and it’s only after the death of the composer that the people who think they keep the moral right are imposing things where, in fact, it would not have been the case had the composer been alive. Recently, we had a terrible experience. We wanted to do [Igor Stravinsky’s] Rite of Spring, with percussion. And we started to work very hard and we had a great arrangement, and we were doing the same piano arrangement as Stravinsky and we were adding percussion, kind of wild percussion, salvaged percussion, not classical percussion, and it was sounding very tribal. For me, this piece is very tribal. But then we were denied the right to perform it because people said, “No, we cannot allow you the right to touch this piece.” And I’m sure if Stravinsky had been alive, I would have gone and played it for him, and he would have given us the right to do this version; I’m certain. But now, it’s like that. He’s gone and the music must stay exactly [as it was].

And I think the opposite: The music has gone through all those years because it was carried by the talent of the interpreters, and the different interpretations gave the music another dimension. Not that it didn’t have it, but that’s how it survived all those centuries. It’s a huge responsibility because, in a way, more and more, the people think we need to be faithful. And of course we need to be faithful, but faithful to what? Can someone explain to me, really, how Mozart or Beethoven wanted to be performed? It has to do with knowledge of the epoch. Knowledge of the style. Knowledge in general. But there is not only one way to perform the music, thank God. It is not a scientific thing. And yes, I do regret not to have met Stravinsky. We were lucky to have met Luciano Berio, Leonard Bernstein, to have met great composers of our time, but too bad for Igor.

We will do pieces where virtuosity is demanded by the composer, but we are not interested in only virtuosic pieces.

What’s your practice regime like when you’re on the road?

Depends. Today was hard because we had this long flight and it’s Friday and the airport was packed with people, and Marielle was coming from London. She was there with her husband. We met in Lisbon, but I did not practice as much as I would have liked, but tomorrow we will make it up; we have the stage, we have all day. Also, we are playing repertory that we know. We are playing Gershwin, Philip Glass, and Bernstein — an entirely American program.

That’s the program we’ll get to hear in San Francisco.

We will be more than ready!

I saw the piece in Architectural Digest, with your beautiful pianos in Rome. Do you actually have 17 pianos?

We have a lot. It’s difficult because we have the tendency when the piano is old, we cannot get rid of it. We still have the old piano of my mother! It cannot play anymore, but we kept it. Then we have two fortepianos, really beautiful, in Roma; we have two Steinway model Ds, also in Roma; and we have two Steinway Ds in Paris; and we have also two grand pianos, one Steinway D and one Yamaha concert grand, on the Basque coast. We live in Roma, we are citizens of Italy for 20 years, but it’s hard for us even to go on holiday if we don’t have a piano. Plus, we have the upright because we don’t always like to practice on the grand. So, more or less, yes, it’s 17.

I’m sure if Stravinsky had been alive, I would have gone and played it for him, and he would have given us the right to do this version.

Is your favorite still the Hamburg Steinway, would you say?

Definitely. That’s really the one we adore. We are lucky in Italy because we have this guy called Fabbrini, and we have the best technician in Italy — Tonino Rapoccio. He’s the same piano technician that Krystian Zimerman is using, and my dream would be to take him with us.

It’s always hard for pianists who travel, but to find two good pianos that match well…

It’s so difficult. It’s not only the piano. Tuning: You can find a lot of good tuners, but for the mechanism of the piano, you need fantastic technicians. If the action is not good, if the action is not even, if the piano is not maintained well, it’s a drag. And a good technician can adapt almost any piano. I know they can do wonderful things. We arrive the day before, and the technician works all day, and sometimes the next day; we don’t even recognize the piano. The pianos are important but the technician is really as important.

Your foundation also supports visual artists.

I wish we could do more. We don’t have any sponsors, so it is our money, and every concert helps. I think we are in an epoch where everything is related to the image. We go on the Internet and Facetime and Skype. I think classical music is not so oriented to music, but now, since [San Francisco Symphony’s Music Director Michael] Tilson Thomas in Miami [with his New World Symphony] where you can project at the same time of the concert, this hall is already equipped, and I hope this will be followed more.

Bernard Hermann is in one of your projects, and he’s one of my favorite film composers.

Mine, too. I think Hermann suffered so much all his life that the people referred to him, not as you and I do, because when we say, “film composer” it is not pejorative, but for a lot of people when they say, “film composer,” it is pejorative and a lot of Hermann’s music is just unbelievable. And we’re right now in this project. When we come back from San Francisco we’ll go straight into rehearsal. We’re using [the score for] Wuthering Heights and it’s so beautiful. It will be a piece for classical piano and orchestra because no one knows, really, Wuthering Heights. I always feel that the more a work is well known, the more risk you can take towards this work. But if a work is not well known, and that is, unfortunately, the case with Wuthering Heights, I think you have to present it as faithfully as the composer did because, really, it deserves it. That’s an amazing score. Some of the music like the “Meditation” and “Cathy’s Death.” That’s the good thing about the radio orchestra in Köln, and radio orchestras in Germany, because you really have the possibility to produce such a project. We need to be with the orchestra for eight days to rehearse. It’s more a production than a concert.

You grew up with music in the house, not only because your mother was a pianist, but she taught piano, so music was constantly there. I heard you say that the first time you were in a house without a piano, you thought it was so strange.

Yeah, I still, I have to say, connect better with people who know music. It’s true; we were just around music so much of the time. The people who can live without music, it’s strange for me. I have less things to share.

Your foundation is doing these wonderful projects for children. What do you think is the best way to educate children to enjoy music?

Everything is possible. There are new ways, and I think it is so important that we should not decide only one way. If you want to entertain them, it’s good, too, and we just did it. The audience was a thousand children, and we spoke with them after, and that was nice; that’s one way. Some other way is to have the children participating. That is what we did with Simon Rattle in Berlin with [Saint-Saëns’] Carnival of the Animals. The children had choreography, they were using their own costumes, they were dancing onstage; we were in the pit accompanying them. In Vienna, we asked the children to draw what the music was like for them, so they did amazing drawings and we did video out of these drawings, and that’s an idea I always like to do that together. We give them the theme of the music — “Mother Goose,” “La Belle et la bête.” In fact, now we are working on a new project in Dortmund where we will do one week of concerts where we will work with the children and ask them to make drawings. Not only to listen but to participate and be part of the show.