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Labèque sisters: ‘We hear Philip Glass played mechanically. He’s not like that. He’s the last romantic composer of our century’

The celebrated French piano duo talk about the new scores for three Cocteau films they’ll be playing at the NCH


The Labèque sisters, Katia and Marielle, are one of the world’s most celebrated and longest-lasting piano duos. They began working together as long ago as 1968. It wasn’t entirely a musical decision. The two started playing together professionally, Katia once said, “not because we loved the repertory for duo pianists – we didn’t even know it then – but because we didn’t want to separate”.

Their taste is catholic. They play the great works of the two-piano canon up to and including Bartók, Stravinsky and Poulenc. And, even early in their career, they also espoused work by living composers of what was then the European avant-garde.

But they came late to Philip Glass. Katia – who, born in 1950, is the older sister by two years – recalls the shock of hearing his 1975 opera, Einstein on the Beach, but mentions nothing between that and an encounter with Maki Namekawa and Dennis Russell Davies playing the composer’s Four Movements for two pianos of 2008.

“We were not at all involved in this style of music,” she explains, “because for years we were working with Luciano Berio, with György Ligeti, with Pierre Boulez. So it was quite opposite in style. And until 2011 we were really outside of what we called the minimalist movement.”

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That was the year that their friend Igor Toronyi-Lalic organised a three-day festival featuring minimalist composers at King’s Place in London. Katia told him that they had never played anything in minimalist style but that she had heard a two-piano piece by Glass and “loved it so much. It was the first piece we decided to put in the programme. The festival included the pioneers, people like Steve Reich, Philip Glass and all the ones who started this movement. Then another day was rock’n’roll, like Sonic Youth, like Radiohead, groups which were inspired by this minimalist movement; also Aphex Twin.

“And the third day was the Europeans, people like Arvo Pärt, even if he’s not part of this movement, and Howard Skempton, who is a wonderful composer that not so many people know. And of course Michael Nyman, who in a way was also involved in starting this movement.” Nyman is one of the people credited with using the word minimalism in connection with music.

Glass heard the Labèques in his Four Movements in a televised concert from the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. “And,” says Katia, “we did the premiere of his concerto in 2015 with Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel. That was the beginning.”

‘We were not at all involved in this style of music because for years we were working with Luciano Berio, with György Ligeti, with Pierre Boulez’

—  Katia Labèque

They stayed in close contact with the composer. “And,” she says, “he was the one who said, ‘Okay, I want you to play Les Enfants Terribles. I will send you the score.’ It took quite some time, and just before the pandemic it arrived. That was really an amazing gift.” Les Enfants Terribles is one of a trilogy of chamber operas Glass created by writing new scores to replace the original soundtracks of films of Cocteau’s Orphée, La Belle et la Bête and Les Enfants Terribles.

Marielle adds, “It was great to get the music at this period, because everything was so quiet. We had time also to listen to the opera, read the book Les Enfants Terribles again. It was a perfect period just to get inside the music and the story. We were very lucky.”

Katia takes over. “Philip is really so generous with his interpreters. He’s the kind of composer, if we asked him, when he wrote the concerto, how should we play this passage? What shall we do?, he says, ‘You know, it’s yours now. Now I’ve written it, it’s in your hands. You decide what you want to do.’ He never imposes on you. He’s always able to accept whatever change you might suggest because it sounds better or whatever. He is always so open.”

Marielle agrees. “Yeah, Philip is friends with all the musicians. We all love him. He has such a beautiful personality. And he wrote a fantastic book, Words Without Music. I had time during the Covid pandemic to read it in French as well as English, because a lot of things in English I could not understand.”The word that crops up most often to describe him is “joyful”. When they first met him, “it was if we would have known him for years… forever,” says Katia. “And he was so funny,” adds Marielle, “because of course he was already almost 80 years old at this time. And then he said, ‘You know, we have to speak about our future together.’ And then he started laughing like crazy, because of course, you know, when you’re 80 years old… I really liked that he has a side almost like a child.”

Katia chips in. “I remember we had, like, I don’t know, a four-bar or six-bar tacet,” she says, referring to a section where they were silent. And he said, ‘Oh, but your tacet there, it cannot be. You have to play!’ So he started writing for us, you know, three days before the concert. He was nice.”

The novelty of the patterning of Glass’s writing was not plain sailing for the players, in spite of the duo’s technical accomplishments. Katia explains. “When we started to learn in 2010 before the festival, the third of the Four Movements was very difficult. Because you have a lot of repetitive patterns and we were not used to that. So instead of counting 18 times, we might count 17, or get lost because we did not have this kind of mind. And also because sometimes I was playing like two, three plus four and Marielle was playing four, four. And we had to make the difference obvious to the ear and not play everything equal, because that’s the beauty of it. I had one rhythmic pattern, but she had another one.”

At one point, she says, she thought of giving up. And this is in spite of the fact that they used to play Boulez’s notoriously challenging Structures by heart. “That was difficult. But it was a language we knew.”

And he was so funny because he was already almost 80 years old at this time. And he said, ‘You know, we have to speak about our future together’

—  Marielle Labèque

Marielle adds. “Yeah, it is true. Because when we started working on the Four Movements, the score seemed to be quite easy. But it’s not. And when we started playing together, it was impossible. And I was saying, ‘What are you doing?’ Because we never have one bit together, you know, everything is in between. So if you get lost, it’s so hard to get back. Nothing is really together. Even playing Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring you have the first beat together!

In terms of expression, they draw a comparison with Ravel’s Mother Goose suite. “When you look at the score,” Marielle says, “it doesn’t look so difficult. But when you start playing it, and making music, and phrasing, it’s the same, but with few notes. The quality of sound, of phrasing, of tempo, of something which has to be magical… and we are looking for the same things with Philip. I think it’s really wrong to play everything evenly and mechanically.”

Marielle focuses on the works of the Cocteau trilogy they play at the National Concert Hall. “In these three operas,” she says,” the character changes so much going from Orphée to La Belle et la Bête, which is much more romantic. So you cannot play in exactly the same way. You are more free in La Belle et la Bête than we are, for example, in Les Enfants Terribles, which is much more dramatic. That’s what we have to do, to find so many characters. Because inside each piece you have nine or 10 little pieces, but each one has to be different.”

“Very often,” says Katia, “Philip himself refers to his music as Schubert or Ravel. And unfortunately, most of the time, we hear Philip Glass played really mechanically, and he’s not like that. He’s probably the last of the romantic composers of our century, you know. Because the importance to him of rubato, of beauty, of phrasing, is always there when you work with him. And very often he says, ‘No. Play it like Schubert.’”

The Labèque sisters play Michael Riesman’s two-piano arrangement of Philip Glass’s Cocteau Trilogy at the National Concert Hall on Saturday, June 15th