REVIEW: Labèque Sisters, New York Philharmonic, and a Hero's Life
Above: Katia and Marielle Labèque, Pianos, Semyon Bychkov, Conductor, and The New York Philharmonic. Photo by Chris Lee
May 3, 2019
By Brian Taylor
The New York Philharmonic performed Max Bruch's Concerto for Two Pianos only once, in 1917, but the composer might not have recognized it, had he been in attendance. The late-Romantic German composer, whose limited fame rests largely on his more widely performed Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, had entrusted the work to the Sutro sisters, Rose and Ottilie. But they edited it heavily for their two performances of the piece (the other with Stokowski in Philadelphia) — even jettisoning a movement — and copyrighted it for themselves. Apparently they went on to scam Bruch out of the profits of that Violin Concerto, too.
Two sisters of less vacillating character, Katia and Marielle Labèque, have rescued the work from its dubious obscurity. With Marielle's husband Semyon Bychkov on the podium, the illustrious pair gave a potent performance of the restored work, programmed alongside Richard Strauss's monumental Ein Heldenleben.
Bruch's concerto post-dates Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps and Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. But it seems oblivious to such new developments in music. It begins solemnly, evocative of a funeral march, instantly drawing comparison to Rachmaninoff's single-piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, composed some years prior. The Labèques play as one organism, their first extended passage without orchestra a slowly unfolding fugue, building in filigree until the pianos are embedded in a thick orchestral cushion. A test for the duo pianists is Bruch's fondness, especially in this first movement, of having them doubling lines. The effect is emphatic, and creates a thick, gauzy quilting that falls like comfort food on the ears.
The second movement ushers in a fresh, gentle breeze, encouraged by Bychkov, then a driving pulse injects some life into the room. Bruch's melodies are saccharine, yet earnest. His writing for the piano duo is more fun in uptempo passages; when the Labèques have some dialogue to dig into. The concerto is best in the third movement’s operatic singing lines. The Labèques have an uncanny rapport, matching each other note for note, each as virtuosic as the other. An encore by Philip Glass displayed their flying fingers equally, a gradually building, circular kaleidoscope of arpeggios.
Richard Strauss, in opera and the uniquely symphonic medium of the tone poem, set a variety of characters' narratives and emotional lives to wildly ecstatic music. His 1898 orchestral work Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life) is generally thought to concern the most interesting character he knew: himself. In six continuous sections, we meet our protagonist, his "adversaries" (read: critics who described the work as "revolting," "cacophonous," "erratic," and "lunatic"), and his "companion" (read: his wife), he engages in battle, makes peace, and finally, retires and finds fulfillment. Although he was coy about it (framing the work as an answer to Beethoven's Eroica Symphony), the roughly fifty minute score quotes from his oeuvre. Whether merely grandiloquent self-aggrandizement, or an ironic, self-deprecating challenge to his audience, the piece requires a virtuosic orchestra to bring it off.
The New York Philharmonic has the goods -- they recorded it under previous Music Director Alan Gilbert -- and Bychkov has the chops to make sense of the piece's sprawl. The opening section, "The Hero," is the musical embodiment of a surge of confidence. Ego depicted in sound. New York's horns and low strings play the billowy Hero's theme with blood-red vibrance. Immediately, it's clear Bychkov has eyes on the prize, steering us toward the work's culmination with alacrity. The acerbic, naysaying material for the woodwinds that represents the composer's enemies comes naturally to New York's players. Concertmaster Frank Huang -- in solos supposed to represent the object of our hero's romantic affection -- demurs from vain showiness.
The battle sequence nods to Strauss's operatic forbears and continues to influence today's film scores. The Phil knows how to do edge-of-your-seat suspense in their sleep. But Strauss requires an alert traffic cop who knows how to manage the balance between background and foreground. Bychkov fills the bill.. The two sections that follow avoided feeling languorous; rather than a long letdown from the excitement of battle, Bychkov shaped the meandering phrases into a steadfast search for fulfillment.
Upcoming NY Phil performances: