Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

French Piano Duo Music


Saint-Saens Danse Macabre, Variations on a theme by Beethoven Op 35

Franck Prelude, Fugue and Variations Op 18

Infante Three Andalucian Dances

Poulenc Pieces


Jos van Immerseel, Claire Chevalier (pianos, Erard, 1904 and 1897)


ZigZag Territoires ZZT2030903








Ravel: Rhapsodie Espagnole, Ma Mere L'Oye, Bolero, Pavane, Menuet Antique, Epigraphs


Katia and Mariella Labeque (piano)


Labeques own label: KML1111


Two eminently recommendable piano duo discs, very different in approach, very similar in the idiomatic results, which are by turns witty and sensitive. The Labeque sisters were and are arguably the best-known classical piano duo; this is the launch of their own label. Van Immerseel has a fine track record on the fortepiano, and here moves a little way towards the present day; he and Chevalier play their own pianos.


Period or modern instrument? The question has no single answer, but it is interesting to see the authenticity movement creep ever closer to the present day, so now we hear impressionist piano music played on the pianos for which it was written. As so often with period instruments, the performers (and listeners) have the advantage of a more idiomatic basic palette of sound, but then have to work harder to insert the detail. The reliable action of modern pianos makes it easier, in theory, to produce more gradations of detail and colour.


In this repertoire, moreover, the period and modern instruments sound sufficiently similar to be susceptible of direct comparison – it becomes part of the modern player's task to recreate that original sound-world - where a Bach or Mozart performer is, by definition, producing something very different. In this context, a recently heard disc of a 1905 Steinway played by the musicologist Roger Nichols on Syrinx ( 5016700903027) , entitled ‘Debussy and his world,' forms a further instructive comparison, but it confirms my opinion (and my divergence from MP's editor) in believing that the ability of the performer to control tone colour is of far greater moment than the periodicity of the instrument.


It would be interesting if the “Beethoven” variations (the theme is the trio from Op31 No 3) would be guessed as Saint-Saens in a blind test. Its style, as well as its theme, is Germanic, its performance stirring. On the disc, it leads well into the Franck, whose sonorities are perfectly appropriate to the period instruments. The Poulenc is given a sparkling account; the piano sound adding a ‘retro' flavour appropriate to the subject matter.


The turn-of-the century Erards on the Zig Zag disc also illuminate why the Labeques' playing is so fine on modern instruments. The older pianos have a lighter, clearer sound, and this is matched by the Labeques' limpid, allusive attack. It is significant that Bolero, which would benefit from more edge and angst, is definitely the least successful piece on the disc. The Labeques add their own percussion part to Bolero. It is debatable whether this contributes anything over the original, fine transcription. Is it, indeed, a compensation for a lack of engagement in the original score? Elsewhere, the opening of Mother Goose (Sleeping Beauty) sees the Labeques' fleet fingers and emotional acuity at their best.


Conversely, it is easy to see that the power and more upholstered tone of the modern Steinway gives the Labeques a cushion of comfort over, for example, the period players' Dance Macabre. In the Infante dances (Infante was an assimilated Spaniard) and the Rhapsodie Espagnole, we have a direct comparison in the strong Spanish ethnic and cultural influence on French music – though, to the disadvantage of neither. Indeed, the Labeque disc is a personal homage to the performers' roots; they grew up in the Basque country and were frequently taken to Ravel's house nearby. That, as we see also in the Gardiner MDG Bach cantata series, is one indisputable example of artist labels; the chance to make the results very individual and as idiosyncratic as one would wish.


Two small grouses. Despite the differences of the repertoire, the Labeques could have brought more of the energy and joy to this CD recording that characterised above all their very fine Brahms Hungarian Dances. MP's editor has remarked on the paucity of documentation on the Zig Zag disc, unlike this company's other issues. One can only imagine that this is because the recording dates from 1999 and is therefore a re-issue.


Ying Chang