4th May 2019
They walked out onstage together, each in sleek, close-fitting leather pants. One wore a nipped white jacket and a black blouse. The other wore the reverse colors. Each took a seat opposite the other at the two twin Steinway pianos that sat, spooned together on the stage of David Geffen Hall. This week the New York Philharmonic welcomed back Katia and Marielle Labèque, the twin virtuoso pianists who always play together.
Since bursting onto the international scene in 1980, the Labèque sisters have enjoyed a long and varied international career on the concert stage and the recording studio. For these concerts, the conductor was Semyon Bychkov in the second week of a two-week stint at David Geffen Hall. Mr. Bychkov has worked with the Labèque sisters for a long time–he is married to Marielle. (For the purposes of writing this review, your narrator is not sure which of the two sisters was which but he thinks it was Marielle on the right. Thanks for your understanding.)
Friday’s matinee program opened with a piece that the Labèque sisters are working to bring back to the standard repertory: Max Bruch’s four-movement Concerto for Two Pianos written in 1912 (as a rewrite of a planned orchestral suite) for another piano-playing pair of sisters, Rosalie and Ottile Sutro. (The Sutro siblings played this work once with the New York Philharmonic, way back in 1917. It has been unheard here since.) problem with the work lies in its origins as an orchestral suite. Its sprawl lacks the unity of form that is a feature of the multi-movement concerto and comes across as a series of opportunities for twin-tastic pianistic display.
The pianos entered first, sounding a solemn challenge against the answer of orchestra and brass. This led off a slow and magisterial opening movement, as the black and white clad players added ornamentation at their respective keyboards. The thematic ideas unfolded with an old-fashioned deliberation, with Bruch’s ideas falling squarely into the back-to-Bach movement that swept Germanic Europe at the turn of the last century. Each keyboard developed its musical ideas in antiphonal concert, but the close setting of the two pianos on the stage made it difficult to tell who was playing what.
This deliberate split image was frustrating to listen to, but it didn’t impair the quality of each sister’s playing. The orchestra was supportive, with a brassy enthusiasm for the sort of piece that might have been programmed in the Kurt Masur era. Mr. Bychkov opened the second movement slowly again before finally reaching the point of a vigorous Allegro. This was thrilling but sounded out of place in the middle pages of the symphony. The lyric slow movement allowed each sister the chance to indulge their own abilities, again always in antiphon and usually in close concert with each other. The finale allowed for more showing off, a dazzling display of sweet melody and twenty fingers whipping up a storm of sound.
Those same charges might (and have) been levied against Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, the six-movement autobiographical tone poem which made up the second half of this concert. Heldenleben )(the title means “A Hero’s Life” is a big, sturdy concert-hall staple, allowing most of the orchestra a chance for brilliant displays of musicianship. Strauss took the opportunity in the fifth movement (“The Hero’s Works of Peace”) to write musical callbacks to all of the works that he had written in the first half of his compositional career, from the horn-dog horn calls of Don Juan to the cheeky clarinet figure representing Till Eulenspiegel.
The sheer enthusiasm with which the Philharmonic players tore into this familiar work showed that Strauss himself was not the only hero on the stage. In his solo passages, concertmaster Frank Huang showed great concentration, even as his unsupported violin line had to cope with some very active and persistent audience electronics. The big battle sequence had the violence and power of an Avengers movie, with Strauss squashing his so-called enemies (the music critics, of course) under an avalanche of percussion and brass. Heldenleben ends with a joke on Also Sprach Zarathustra as the composer changes the ending of that work to resolve the two seemingly irreconcilable tonalities of B and C. In Mr. Bychkov’s capable hands, that resolution sounded correct and surprisingly simple.