Labèque sisters make a belated downtown Chicago Symphony debut

Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 1:16 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Katia (left) and Marielle Labèque made their Chicago Symphony Orchestra subscription debut Thursday night with conductor Semyon Bychkov.

It’s been a good fortnight for French musicians at Symphony Center. Conductor Stéphane Denève made an impressive podium debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last week. And Thursday night it was the turn of the duo-pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque in their belated CSO subscription bow, with Semyon Bychkov on the podium.

Surprisingly the celebrated French siblings have only played with the CSO once previously — in 1995 at Ravinia — also with Bychkov and in the same work heard Thursday, Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos.

The concerto repertoire for two pianos is not vast — or, to be candid, musically substantial. There’s Mozart’s K.316a, and Mendelssohn and Bruch each wrote a two-piano concerto but neither is among their best work.

So we’re left with 176-key souffles like that of Poulenc’s 1932 divertissement. At 19 minutes, Poulenc’s lightweight esprit doesn’t outstay it’s welcome — just — but this is still pretty thin stuff. The two most memorable themes are barely disguised cribs of Satie and Mozart and there is an overall lightness of musical being, even by early Poulenc standards.

For all that, the Labèques played with their renown tightly coordinated partnership. The sisters brought the requisite joie de vivre and vital articulation to the silent-movie-chase antics of the opening movement and refined feeling to the Mozartian embroidery of the Larghetto. The quicksilver finale provided an effervescent closer without the soloists sacrificing an essential Gallic elegance. Conductor Bychkov — Marielle Labèque’s husband — led the CSO in a witty accompaniment that brought out the mordant humor and mock-drama.

The sisters were heard to better advantage sans orchestre in the bonus “prequel” of Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, which served admirably to fill out this week’s slender program.

Less often heard than the more familiar orchestral version, the two-piano original has its own rewards. The Labèques gave a notably concentrated performance that conveyed the moody and evocative elements of the score as surely as the burst of Iberian brilliance in the concluding Feria.

Bychkov has had some impressive nights with the CSO in the past, and the performance of Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben that concluded Thursday’s concert was a solid and largely well played account, a few ragged entrances and odd balances apart.

The battle scene with its off-kilter fanfares and mock heroics was suitably imposing. Scott Hostetler’s English horn solo perfectly captured the rustic Alpine solace of the closing section. And the CSO winds had a field day laying waste to the title hero’s adversaries in Strauss’s withering depiction of music critics as whiny, wheedling dorks.

Yet ultimately, this was a good rather than a great Heldenleben. Bychkov’s direction was more fussy than insightful and the streamlined reading overall was wanting in swagger and the kind of outsized personality, quirky humor and tonal richness the score demands. Robert Chen’s rendering of the extended solo violin portrait of the hero’s companion (Pauline de Ahna, the formidable Mrs. Strauss) was well played and elegantly turned but seemed literal and straight-faced like much of the rest of the performance.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday.; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Labèque sisters make a belated downtown Chicago Symphony debut”

  1. Posted Nov 18, 2011 at 6:04 pm by Lily Lyons

    The Labeque sisters deserved a standing ovation! Their performance of the Poulenc was playful, inventive, energetic and pure delight. The prequel was a treat with their hauntingly beautiful interpretation of Ravel’s Rhapsody. We hope to hear the Labeques at Orchestra Hall again soon.

  2. Posted Nov 19, 2011 at 11:16 am by Gary Duzinski

    I totally agree with Lily and was surprised at what I thought was an enthusiastic, yet under-valued response by the audience. Regardless of the “weight” of the music, their performance was fantastic.

  3. Posted Nov 19, 2011 at 1:14 pm by Dave

    I enjoyed the performances by the Labeque sisters and appreciated their sense of teamwork and style. I love Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, so the addition of this piece to start the concert was a welcomed surprise. I came to this concert mainly for the Strauss Ein Heldenleben, and I left inspired by the fantastic account given by Bychkov and the CSO. Everything felt right, from the sense of precision and confidence, to the characterful solos and broad dynamic range of the orchestra. What a treat it was to hear the horns playing at their best with the fantastic Daniel Gingrich in the first chair! I also admired the conductor’s approach to the score, which brought out the alternating moments of swagger and tenderness without sacrificing the rhythm and forward pace.

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