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A Fascinating French Voyage

Hong Kong
Hong Kong Cultural Center, Tsim Sha Tsui
03/20/2009 -  and March 21*
Hector Berlioz: Le Corsaire: Overture
Francis Poulenc: Concerto for two pianos
Claude Debussy: En blanc et noir
César Franck: Symphony in D minor

Katia Labèque, Marielle Labèque (pianos)
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, David Atherton (Conductor)

The Labèque sisters (© Brigitte Lacombe)

The duo-pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque have built an electrifying and accomplished concert career over the decades. These two gifted pianists are known not only for the seamless ensemble of their playing but also for their superlative musicianship and extraordinary scope of repertoire which ranges from Bach, Mozart and Schubert to Stravinsky, Gershwin, Bernstein and the avant-garde composers of the 20th century. After 10 years, on Friday and Saturday evenings, these two French-born pianists bestowed their musical gifts to Hong Kong audience again by presenting the glorious French odyssey.

The concert opened with French composer Berlioz’s Le Corsaire Overture, which is among his rarely performed concert pieces. It is impossible not to admire HKPO’s Conductor Laureate David Atherton’s bold repertoire choice that always inject fresh air into Hong Kong audience’s ears. The scurrying pace and blistering runs by the strings dashingly whipped up the ocean waves and the gusting winds. The following slow section was rendered with HKPO’s typically intimate and warm intonation, as well as spellbinding bass-lines, the most impressive part throughout the whole evening.

Amongst their wide range of repertoires accumulated over the past decades, the Labèque sisters chose Poulenc’s Concerto for two pianos for tonight’s concert, a tailor made showpiece they have performed frequently during the recent seasons. The two sisters collaborated with each other intimately, with no leader, no follower, and, most stunningly, rarely an obvious eye contact. Even the most delicate ornaments were synchronized with utmost discipline and refinement. They captured both the music’s sly humor and exquisite panache, which natively brought the composer’s thoughts to life. The second movement was also immersed with Mozartean simplicity and delicacy, and, at the same time, without scarifying Poulenc’s underlying pleasantry. But unfortunately, the over-aggressive trumpet somehow demolished the peaceful realm in this enchanting movement. Conductor Atherton and the HKPO also provided a sympathetic accompaniment to this already consummately collaborated duo, turning every voice on the stage into a unified artwork.

After the intermission, Katia and Marielle Labèque delivered Debussy’s En blanc et noir, a set of three miniatures for two pianos. The title is in French, and can be translated as In White and Black, which implies the colors of the piano keys and the composer’s own diametrically contrasting emotions at the time. However, the Labèque sisters transformed the piano keys into a variegated sketch that found wonderfully felicitous inflections of dynamics, tempo and articulation. Under their nimble fingers, the chords in Lent, sombre were rendered with organ-like sonorities, while the filigrees in Scherzando were romped through with whirlwind speed, but without compromising every vestige of details inherent in the music.

Franck’s Symphony in D minor was always astonishing. This large-scale orchestral work was a unique masterpiece in this Belgium-born Frenchman’s output, which was dominated by religious music. Maestro Atherton clearly realized the music’s grand architecture by joining all the disparate sections into a coherent flow, with every tempo change, sectional pause being carefully measured. His craftsmanship was successfully rewarded in the final movement, where every recurring theme seemed to be an inevitable consequence of what had happened before. The music’s intricate texture was also tellingly floated to the surface by the orchestra’s clear balance. The brass was particularly resonant and harmonious tonight, fading its usual jarring and burbled tone, contributing to a refined orchestral balance throughout the entire concert hall. One reservation to this performance was HKPO’s under-wrapped dynamic contrast, in which the mysterious second movement was too naked and the grandeur at the end was a little inhibited.

HKPO’s Website
The Labèque sisters’ Website

Danny Kim-Nam Hui



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