As the world’s most famous piano duo, Katia and Marielle Labèque need little introduction to London audiences. Yet the Southbank Centre (which, hard to believe, first hosted them 40 years ago) still had to decide where to “file” this duo in its programming. Though the Labèques might equally well have been presented among the piano recitals, they appeared instead here in the International Chamber Music Series – tellingly so, since their playing is all about instinctive ensemble.
This programme stressed the domestic side of the piano duo repertoire. Following closely the outline of their recent album, Sisters, the concert was a sequence of miniatures tracing the earliest roots of their music-making — the charming Berceuse from Fauré’s Dolly Suite, for instance, which they have been playing together for almost six decades. If the overall picture was bitty, heard as a sonic photo album of the lives of this close-knit pair it was touchingly personal.
In a concert that saw them move between two pianos, four hands and duos at one keyboard, the Labèques opened with the Russian Dance from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, arranged by Debussy. The pianists’ personalities may be very different – Katia all flamboyance, Marielle more introspective – but they play with sibling telepathy. In the Pizzicato-Polka by the brothers Johann Strauss II and Josef Strauss, composed in St Petersburg, that meant perfectly coordinated trip-trapping lightness.
Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, written originally for two pianists, were played with a perfect synergy that allowed the Labèques occasionally to pull the music around unduly. Wherever these Brahms masterpieces are, Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances are seldom far behind, and a couple of these more substantial pieces were delivered with wonderful, melancholy richness of texture.
Yet with many pieces lasting no more than a couple of minutes, the bonbon factor was high. Hidden amid the miniatures by Bizet, Satie, Poulenc, Stravinsky and others, the Brasileira from Milhaud’s Scaramouche pulled things together neatly. Originally composed for a duo including the great Marguerite Long, teacher of the Labèques’ mother, this freewheeling samba was dispatched with easy insouciance.
Only seven years separate Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini and Rachmaninov’s famous Rhapsody on the same tune, and with its brittle fireworks and driving rhythms the Polish composer’s work testifies to the progressive resilience of wartime Warsaw. After a programme of encore-like pieces, the actual encores needed to do something different, and the finale of Philip Glass’s Four Movements built up its melancholy riffs and tintinnabulation with an intensity that was welcome.