Music: Katia and Marielle Labeque Liverpool Philharmonic

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The Independent Culture
The newly restored Liverpool Philharmonic is so ritzy that any performance must be heightened by the Hollywood-style art deco glamour of the setting. The Labeque sisters, of course, normally bring the glamour with them, and the stage furniture for this show - two gleaming Steinways placed head to toe - could have served for a particularly elaborate musical interlude in a Fred and Ginger film.

As if to reinforce the feeling of bygone elegance, a group of men sat in evening dress in one of the boxes, looking suitably stern-faced like stuffed shirts in a Marx Brothers comedy.

The performance opened with Katia and Marielle playing a Mozart sonata for one piano and four hands. It immediately emphasised the striking differences between them. Katia, whose show this was, is the airy-fairy one, all rhapsodically swaying posture, soulful expressions and high-rising hands. Marielle is more earthy, sitting still and stolid at the keyboard, concentrating on the music and, you imagine, on not being tempted to tell her sister to behave herself or clip her round the ear. Their relationship on stage provides ample fantasy material for an imaginary backstage drama. What goes on between them, one wants to know, when the piano lid is locked shut?

The two sisters played beautifully, as elegant and apparently effortless as a Vuillard sketch. They don't, however, exactly push the boat out, and perhaps one of the reasons they are so popular is that they perform for such a short time and take curtain calls for so long. It would be difficult to accuse them of outstaying their welcome.

Twenty minutes into the concert, and it was time for the Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba to take the strain. He's a fabulous player, but the dry, classical context worked against him, and his three solo numbers were rather etiolated, exquisitely delicate sweeps over the keyboard taking care never to cross any boundaries of taste to the point where they might actually sound like jazz as we know and love it. If only he had played his version of John Lennon's "Imagine" in the city of its composer's birth, he would have been greeted with stamps and cheers. As it was, he exited to polite, if puzzled, applause.

The second half began with both Labeques playing (on two pianos) a Ravel rhapsody and then, after another round of multiple curtain calls, it was time for Rubalcaba again. Dueting with Katia on "Besame Mucho" and his own compendium of Afro-Cuban songs, Rubalcaba at last seemed more relaxed and their interplay was both dazzling and daring.

More curtain calls, a tiny encore and a few more bows, and that was it. The verdict had to be a mixed one; the music was often wonderful, the jazz pieces more swinging than one might have expected from Katia at least, but there wasn't so much as a drop of sweat spilt all night.

n On tour. Tonight Belfast Festival Hall (01232 665577); Thurs, Birmingham Town Hall (0121-605 6666); Fri, Royal Festival Hall, London (0171-960 4242)

PHIL JOHNSON

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