Two interlocking grand pianos, the front with its lid removed, stoof centre-stage amid pale pink lighting at St George’s. Dressed in black, but distinguishable by different sleeves on their outfits, the Labèque sisters arrived on the platform. Watching them play was mesmerizing – the two near-identical sisters share an evident con­nection through the music. When sitting together at the same piano, they watched each other’s hands. Katia, at the treble end of the piano, was a little wilder in performance. Her music was more punctuated with dramatic gestures, usually towards the end of a piece, whereas Marielle, at the bass end, gave a more physically introverted performance, her head down.

Katia and Marielle Labèque © Umberto Nicoletti
Katia and Marielle Labèque
© Umberto Nicoletti

The first half was made up of eleven shorter pieces by Ravel, some written as duets and some arranged for two pianos. The first six were played on the same piano at the left of the stage and the other five were played on two pianos. Being able to see their playing styles separated by the large instruments added an extra physical dynamic to the music. When they sat opposite each other, they couldn’t see their hands, so communicated, but less frequently, with their eyes, seemingly immersed in their own worlds but connecting through the music they played. This connection was something that added an extra element to their performance, drawing the listener further into the music. The stories Ravel tells through his soundscapes were enjoyable to listen to and the sisters assisted escapism to the worlds of these short pieces. “Les entretiens de la belle et de la bête” from Mother Goose gave wonderfully contrasting themes of the beauty and the beast in higher waltz and lower registers of sound, whereas the Pièce en forme de Habanera captured Latin rhythms in the music and “Laideronnette, imperatrice des pagodes” had a modal feel of Eastern sounds.

The part of the evening that stood tall as the odd one out after deeper emotional performances, were the arrangements of Leonard Bernstein’s Songs from West Side Story. These seemed a popularist choice after Schubert's beautiful Fantasie in F minor D940. The mood was light and it was evident that the Labèque sisters clearly enjoyed themselves in the catchy rhythms of Bernstein, but after such delicate choices of Ravel and Schubert, it was a curious choice to end the programme with and hard to shift the mindset as a listener to light entertainment from a deeper state. 

Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor was the highlight of the evening's programme. The Labèques used dynamics to their advantage, playing with the softer pianissimo return of the initial theme after a dramatic bar of silence broke off the intense fugue that fired up some strong playing. This was performed on one piano as originally intended for piano fourhands. 

The biggest surprise of the evening was the encore and it was just the thing required to pull the mind back to the beginning of the evening and the excellent performances of Schubert and Ravel. The Labèques treated St George’s to a truly captivating rendition of Philip Glass’ 4 Movements, in a hugely impactful performance. The four parts reached a swelling climax followed by subtle reintroduction of the main theme just as in the Schubert. The sisters have a knack for capturing contrasts and changes of pace and this was a brilliant piece to show their outstanding skill as entertaining and immersive performers.