Twin peaks

CLASSICAL MUSIC: Katia and Marielle Labeque; Barbican Centre, London
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The Independent Culture
Katia is the shorter sister, who frizzes her hair and has a wicked twinkle in her eye. Marielle looks like a Renaissance Madonna and acts like the elder. (There are two years between them, though I can never remember which way.) On Thursday night, Katia almost had to push Marielle into a second encore, a sort of fantasy on The Entertainer, by which time she was in party mood, all flailing arms and naughtily pointed fingers, which made the audience laugh. She might have been entertaining the boys in Destry Rides Again. Perhaps Marielle sent her to bed without supper afterwards.

Of course, it's all an act. Two pianos are a rich, extravagant medium, with the potential for dramatic sparring, and the Labeques make the most of it. But they do really play together, as only dedicated duos can, and, despite Katia's antics, they don't overload the decibels. Which would have been so easy in the chaste classical language of Mozart's Sonata in F for two players at one piano, and his better-known Sonata in D for two pianos. Here, a little bit of contrast between them wasn't unwelcome, for Katia is the more brittle, percussive player, while Marielle sinks deeper into the keys and sustains a more resonant legato. The sound reflected their different personalities.

It's odd that the original repertoire isn't larger, though writing for two pianos is a lot of work and there aren't so many good duos to reward the effort. But there are some sensational arrangements of orchestral music. Hearing Ravel's transcription of the first two of Debussy's Nocturnes, "Nuages" and "Fetes", was almost more thrilling than hearing the original, because of the added frisson of discovering how the unlikely could be managed. The Labeques played both with a wonderful ear for Debussy's colours and textures, and judged tempi perfectly. Their fingerwork and ensemble were immaculate. A pity we didn't get the last Nocturne, "Sirenes", then Katia could have added the vocals.

Ravel's own Rapsodie Espagnole followed, as sultry and evocative as it was disciplined by understatement. It's such fastidious music, it hardly invites exaggeration. So the girls earnt the right to go a bit flash, and launched into Michel Camilo's Jazz on Fire, one of their irresistible crossover numbers, Katia spinning a thin little tendril of a melody to begin, then both erupting in a tumultuous Latin tumble.

Adrian Jack

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