At a time when you don’t even need to change radio stations to teleport from one musical universe to another, should we be surprised if the Labèque sisters choose to share the stage of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées with Kalakan, a trio of basque musicians? Well, perhaps. Following the iridescent tones of the piano-four-hands version of Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye, hearing basque songs a cappella or accompanied by traditional instruments shatters the ritual of the piano recital most unexpectedly. One’s ear asks questions, tenses, finally accepts without reservation these different melodies, rhythms, colours of the musical horizon.

Katia & Marielle Labèque © Umberto Nicoletti
Katia & Marielle Labèque
© Umberto Nicoletti
With quicksilver fingers, the piano sisters Katia and Marielle caress the simple melodic shapes of Ma mère l’Oye, shapes which breathe childhood innocence, shapes which invade our consciousness like the ancient tales that inspired their composition. Like an echo, Thierry Biscary, Xan Errotabehere and Jamixel Bereau, the three members of Kalakan, unite their voices in the intimacy of a lullaby from their homeland. Singing in falsetto, Jamixel Bereau caps the principal melody with held notes moving to near-impossible softness. There’s no doubt that Kalakan and the Labèque sisters are sharing the same magic. Regardless of style and genre, they make one search their music for a touch of the universal so often dreamed of.

The scene is set from the very first bars of the programme, with the arrangement for piano of George Gershwin’s Three Preludes. As a composer, Gershwin was neither fully classical nor fully popular; in these preludes, he combines sophisticated musical vocabulary with the spontaneity of jazz and blues. Next, we here Four movements for two pianos, recent works by Philip Glass at whose heart we are captivated by repeated fragments of melody, submerged in a torrent of continuous notes. This first part of the programme, dedicated to American music, gives the two sisters the chance to display remarkable levels of energy. With perfectly synchronised movement, they capture, exchange, distribute the various melodic and rhythmic elements into different soundscapes, fusing the flexible, ample, coloured timbres of their two instruments in the most harmonious fashion.

We hear the opening notes of Ma mère l’Oye at the start of the second half of the concert. There’s no point looking for some musicological concept which underpins the programming: quite simply, Ravel sounds different when you’ve just heard Gershwin and Glass. Ravel’s arabesques embody the nature of ancient sounds in a way that is elemental and immediate.

The rendering of three songs by the Kalakan trio, a sort of introduction to basque musical heritage for the uninitiated, was followed by the work that can bring together every constituency: “It’s the Boléro”, runs a murmur around the hall. And indeed, it’s Ravel’s famous Boléro, but arranged for the occasion by the members of the trio. While the Labèques modestly take charge of the celebrated melody, their partners in crime occupy themselves with the percussion, painting local colour onto the compulsive dance rhythm. So we could hear different drums, tambourines and even the txalaparta, an instrument made of wooden boards that are struck with sticks. As in the orchestral version, the listener’s interest is constantly renewed by the changes of instrumentation. But here, the rhythmic ostinato relegates the insistent melody into second place, and remorselessly feeds the irrepressible crescendo – so as to satisfy the fans of the work at the same time as fascinating those who have heard it too often. There’s a price to pay, of course, in the inevitable diminution of polyphonic texture when a work of such varied orchestration is reduced to piano and percussion.

The evening ended with utter simplicity in an experience shared with the audience, who, in the guise of a first encore, were asked to sing (somewhat shyly) a drone, onto which the basque trio overlaid their own voices, under the enthusiastic gaze of the Labèque sisters, seated on the floor at the side of the stage. Finally, Milhaud’s Brazileira brought together for one last time the five artists of a concert which, despite its eclectic programme, achieved a surprising level of consistency.



Translated from French by David Karlin