Conductor: Semyon Bychkov
Bruch: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, Op. 88a
Katia and Marielle Labèque: Pianos
Strauss: Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), Op. 40
Although I regularly watched them on TV as I was growing up, it still took me a few decades and the help of the New York Philharmonic before I at last got to hear the fabulous Katia and Marielle Labèque live, and now it seems that we just can’t stay away from one another. The curse was finally broken early last season when they performed Philip Glass’ Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, which the composer had composed for them, with the NY Phil, and the performance had been totally worth the wait.
Last week they were back at the end of the NY Phil’s current season for Max Bruch’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, which he composed for the significantly less famous and less skilled sister duo of Rose and Ottilie Sutro. They also turned out to be significantly less ethical as they did not hesitate to alter the score to fit their limited abilities, and then copyright and perform that diluted version all over the U.S., including New York City, all unbeknownst to the composer.
The truth was revealed after their death in 1970, when the original version was found and reconstructed. It was recorded in 1993 by the Labèques and Semyon Bychkov, who have made it a part of their regular repertoire since then and who premiered it in New York City last week. And if you want additional proof that this is a family affair, just know that Semyon Bychkov is married to Marielle Labèque.
Moreover, this exciting curiosity would be paired with Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, a monumental tone poem whose popularity has remained unabated all those decades, as long as you’re mentally and physically prepared for it. And I am not just talking about the musicians.
Facing each other across the two majestic Steinways with orchestra and conductor in the back, Katia and Marielle Labèque spontaneously nailed the assertive opening and kept on going full speed ahead throughout the entire 30 minutes. That said, if its story is most unusual, Bruch’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra on the other hand came out as a good old traditional German Romantic concerto, with beautiful melodies and lush lyricism galore.
So there was not much new under the sun in David Geffen Hall last Saturday night, but at least it was abundantly clear that the composer knew how to write pretty music heading straight for the heart, and that all the musicians on that stage knew how to play the more challenging version of it with impeccable technique and a lot of warmth. Therefore, the first half of the program ended up being a very enjoyable experience, if not a ground-breaking one.
The Bruch was much appreciated for sure, but the audience rightly went wild for the encore, which was the last movement of Philip Glass’ Four Movements for Two Pianos, a delightfully intricate excerpt that the two sisters grabbed and sailed through with blazing virtuosity. After all, why limit yourself to the conventional Romantic repertoire when you can brilliantly rock minimalism too?
After intermission, the stage filled up with as many musicians as it seemingly could hold and some for a break-free 45-minute performance of Ein Heldenleben. Consisting in the mighty struggle of the hero against the world as well as the pure bliss of true love, Strauss’ eventful personal journey is not for the faint of heart, but when done right, it is a grand adventure.
To maestro Bychkov’s credit, he managed to keep all the different instrumental forces under tight control, whether the hero was making his big entrance or fighting his enemies, while ever-reliable concertmaster Frank Huang delivered heart-breakingly beautiful solos to convey the inescapable influence of Strauss’ wife Pauline, luminous in the third movement and peaceful in the sixth movement. And all was for the best in the best of possible worlds indeed.