Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Slatkin Katia and Marielle Labèque [Appalachian Spring … Rhapsody in Blue … Pictures at an Exhibition]

Appalachian Spring – Suite
Gershwin, orchestrated Grofé
Rhapsody in Blue [arranged for two pianos by Katia and Marielle Labèque]
Mussorgsky, orchestrated Ravel
Pictures at an Exhibition [edited Slatkin]

Katia and Marielle Labeque (pianos)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 24 May, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Katia & Marielle Labèque. Photograph: Brigeitte LacombeFresh from their tour of Germany, Leonard Slatkin and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra returned to London for a concert of popular works. It might have been an idea to continue with Mozart’s Concerto for two pianos (K365), which had been played on the tour with Katia and Marielle Labèque, rather than Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. With fistfuls of wrong notes in the solo parts (some a consequence of the arrangement) and a lack of togetherness from the pianists, this was the blemish in an otherwise polished performance by the RPO and its Principal Guest Conductor.

Helped by the clarity of Slatkin’s beat, the Suite from Aaron Copland’s ballet-score Appalachian Spring settled quickly and received a heartfelt and vigorous performance with much attention to detail, brass rarely overpowering other instruments. Come the dying-away coda, the extreme sensitivity of the performers made for an exquisite ending.

George Gershwin’s brother Ira gave some unpublished recordings to the Labèque sisters of George playing the piano that revealed how the composer extemporised his compositions while playing. There is nothing earth-shattering in this; George Gershwin’s piano rolls, which he had a propensity to overdub, document the composer wanting more notes than he, or other pianists of the time, were capable of playing. Jack Gibbons has gone some way to realising the composer’s intentions, largely through an impressive technique; sadly the Labèques have halved the solo complexity of Rhapsody in Blue, added very little and still produced an inaccurate performance. By contrast, the orchestral accompaniment was spellbinding.

Leonard SlatkinAs an encore, Slatkin made his debut as a pianist in the Royal Festival Hall, playing ‘Polka’ from Stravinsky’s Three Easy Pieces for piano duet (1914-15) with Katia Labèque.

Starting life as a work for piano, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition has been arranged numerous times. Ravel’s has become the de facto orchestration. Leonard Slatkin has had a long relationship with this work sometimes performing compendium versions that use a different composer’s transcription of each Picture. On this occasion – and not played on the tour of Germany – Slatkin returned to Ravel’s scoring but restored the fifth ‘Promenade’ that Ravel omitted (and, in doing so, took his cue as to its instrumentation from the opening ‘Promenade’) and has also sympathetically adjusted Ravel’s version to equate more to Mussorgsky’s original.

This is particularly striking in ‘Bydlo’, its beginning marked fortissimo by Mussorgsky, Ravel’s diametrically opposing this with pianissimo, and Slatkin adding horns to startling effect: the cattle don’t walk past you, you are in the thick of it from bar one! Other changes are subtler. At the end of ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle’, Mussorgsky’s closing four-note phrase (C, D flat, B flat, B flat) is restored, whereas Ravel had normalised it into a turn (C, D flat, C, B flat). There are also added instruments (a rattle at the end of ‘Bydlo’ for example). From bar 109 of the final picture, ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’, Mussorgsky’s original and Ravel’s orchestration again differ in terms of volume. Slatkin plumped for somewhere in between which doesn’t really work.

But, overall, it was a performance of the highest calibre. The Royal Philharmonic responds well to Slatkin; dynamics were meticulously observed, some nifty tempos brought some brilliantly deft playing, and the whole was altogether special.

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