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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Rapsodie espagnole (1908) [16:14]
Ma mère l'oye (1908-1910) [16:33]
Menuet antique (1895) [7:12]
Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899) [4:27]
Prélude (1900) [1:56]
Boléro (1929) [15:08]
Katia and Marielle Labèque (piano)
Gustavo Gimeno and Thierry Biscary (percussion)
rec. 2006, location not specified

The somewhat fey images of the Labèque sisters on the CD cover and website speak of highly individual, even eccentric, musicians. Their recorded repertoire, embracing so many styles and periods, will now be augmented by music from their own label, KML Recordings, which has the avowed aim of 'transgressing conventions and boundaries'.
Laudable enough but really there is nothing too unconventional about this debut disc - unless you count Boléro, of which more later. The Labèques share Ravel's Basque roots and their devotion to the composer is nothing short of fanatical. Indeed, their mother, a pupil of Ravel’s friend Marguerite Long, took them to see the composer’s house in Ciboure every Sunday, an extraordinary pilgrimage that appears to have left an indelible impression on the girls.
It is worth remembering that many of Ravel's most memorable orchestral scores began life as music for the piano. With the exception of Boléro all the pieces on this disc were originally written for the piano.
Ravel's love of the dance is clear from the number of pavanes, waltzes and minuets that pepper his œuvre, but in the Rapsodie espagnole he focuses on the specifically 'Spanish' rhythms of the Habanera (from his Sites Auriculaires for two pianos c. 1896) and the Malagueña. Even though the former is actually a 19th-century Cuban import, and is itself a derivative of the French contredanse, it has become synonymous with Spain, appearing as it does in Bizet's Carmen and Massenet's Le Cid. The Malagueña has its roots in flamenco and in Feria Ravel quotes a well-known fandango theme.
The Labèques start well with the diaphanous little Prélude à la nuit, its strangely hypnotic falling motif neatly judged. That said they seem curiously detached in the ensuing dances. Surely the sultry Habanera could be a little more sensuous, the passion of the Feria more unbridled, especially in its orgiastic dénouement?
One might also wish for more playfulness and imagination in the tales of Perrault and Mme. d'Aulnoy. The gamelans of Laideronnette, Impératrice des pagodes sound rather veiled and diffuse when ideally they need more sparkle and shine, while the fairy garden needs more of a gossamer touch than it gets here. Ditto the Menuet antique, which although old need not be so stiff.
Sometimes one feels Ravel's best-known works, the Pavane pour une infante défunte, La Valse and Boléro, ought to be locked away and retrieved only when broadcasters and concert programmers promise not to air them at every possible opportunity. That is why before they are trotted out they need to be reinvigorated, made to sound fresh again. What a pity then that the Pavane sounds like just another run through.
Bringing something new and fresh to the ubiquitous Boléro - transcribed for four hands in 1929 - is a tough call but the Labèques decided to do just that by giving it an authentic Basque accent. They enlisted the help of Amsterdam Concertgebouw percussionist Gustavo Gimeno, who plays an atabal (a small Basque drum), a txepetxa (made from half a walnut shell) and a ttun ttun (a lyre-shaped drum with six gut strings). Basque musician Thierry Biscary contributes to the mix with a txalaparta (a beam struck with mallets) and a tobera (a steel lever struck with iron bars).
With this array of unusual percussion instruments one might expect a very distinctive flavour but what actually emerges is rather disappointing. Yes, the playing itself is as rhythmically alert and crisp as it needs to be but the percussion adds little weight or colour to the music. And however expertly the piano mimics the orchestra it simply does not have the cumulative weight that only an orchestra can provide. Goodness knows Boléro is the musical equivalent of a battering ram and should leave one feeling a little more ruffled than it does here.
So, not a particularly inspired or inspiring disc. The Labèques are reasonably well recorded but the playing lacks both subtlety and brio. For that one needs to hear Louis Lortie and Hélène Mercier, superbly recorded by Ralph Couzens and his Chandos team (CHAN8905).

Unfortunately the quirky KML CD insert design, pitiful liner 'notes' and cover photograph all speak of the triumph of style over substance. That probably won’t stop Labèque groupies from buying this disc but those who want more personality and vigour should opt for Lortie and Mercier.
Dan Morgan


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