The Labèque Way – A Conversation with Katia and Marielle Labèque

by marcopantella

Read it on The GROUND Magazine


Katia and Marielle Labèque are more than sisters and internationally acclaimed pianists. There’s something in their bond that goes beyond genetic; it’s something that taps into the soul level. They may be daughters of Ada Cecchi, who was a pupil of pianist Marguerite Long, and passed on to them her love for classical music but these details feels more like faded information on a passport than a blueprint for their future. In fact, meeting Katia and Marielle is like standing in front of two very distinct mirrors reflecting each other as they play along the same harmony. Their talent is not the result of a solitary gene showing up, uninvited, in their DNA; Katia and Marielle recognized their artistic place in the world from an early age and ignited it with a passion that revolutionized the classical world, starting with their contemporary rendition of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue that became one of the first gold records in classical music.

As I see them taking the stage at the London Festival Hall, where they will play Poulenc’s Concerto for two pianos and orchestra, led by Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena, I recall my phone conversation with Katia. The punchy and acerbic Concerto begins, I understand that despite the innate nature of talent, Katia and Marielle’s synchronicity is not a mere family affair but a true passion for a journey called life and living for art. An ever experimental journey that may just be better shared and enjoyed between siblings.


Photo by Umberto Nicoletti

“Our lives are so intertwined…” Katia tells me from her apartment in Rome who once belonged to the Borgia family and has been decorated by the grand seigneur of the design world Alex Vervoordt “…and when we’re not travelling together, Marielle travels with her husband”. The other half of the Labèque piano duo is married to prestigious orchestra conductor Semyon Bychkov. “Her life is so difficult to manage having a husband constantly on the road as we are but passion is the key to make it work”. Katia sounds as warm as the sun shining in the a-typically warm winter day in the Italian capital and the passion she speaks with is the same as the one she uses at the grand piano. Time may stand still in the Eternal City but indulging in it is out of discussion for them; “We are musicians and interpreters so being on a stage is essential for us. If we’d be at home the whole time we couldn’t express our musicality. In this respect travelling around the world is a necessity to bring our work to the audience; otherwise it’ll remain a lifeless piece of work. We don’t really get to be tourists but it’s a beautiful necessity”.

It’s a lifetime journey started in the Basque region of France, “one of the few places in France where a musical education does not exist though its culture is musically strong” an adventure that brought them together to the most illustrious orchestras in the world, collaborating with composers like Philip Glass and Luciano Berio and to a record-breaking performance attended by more than 33,000 people at a gala concert with the Berlin Philharmonic inside the Berlin’s Waldbühne. In a classical world where the repertoire for piano duo is limited, Katia and Marielle always had it their way, as the title of their documentary suggests: The Labèque Way, directed by Félix Cábez. Applying the expertise of an artisan they created a body of work of their own, delivering mesmerizing projects that show, and dare, to display exotic combination between the classical world and contemporary art forms. After all Katia is not afraid to mention Radiohead among her favourite composers, along with “Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky in general and Schumann, who in my opinion is not played enough.” I immediately feel that the charm of this lady is not only in the way she speaks Italian but in her nonconforming nature. They brought basque percussions to Ravel’s Bolero with the Kalakan Trio, performed an arrangement for two pianos of Bernstein’s West Side Story arranged by Irwin Kostal and more recently Minimalist Dreamhouse, a project inspired by the early minimalist works that got their exposure in La Monte Young’s 1960-61 Chamber Street Series in Yoko Ono’s New York loft.

Katia, who lives with guitarist, composer and producer David Chalmin has a kind of stability that also allows her to look after their KML Foundation, a heartfelt project founded in 2005 aiming to promote classical music to a new audience whose educational background has lacked an introduction to the classical world “I really enjoy it and I’m definitely more available than Marielle but I don’t see our relationship about sharing tasks. Everything between us runs with a natural flow by now. When we play it’s different though; she brings her strengths, balance and happiness. She’s also physically strong in her approach to the piano and it’s a resourceful skill to use on so many pieces. We are working on the original version of The Rite Of Spring by Stravinsky who composed it for two pianos and she’s got such a strength in the virtuoso and lower parts. Playing together with someone at her level helps a lot.”

katia sola

Photo by Nacho Carretero

When Katia and Marielle take the stage before my very eyes there’s a silent thrill in the audience and as I find myself in front of this one entity breathing the same breath, it’s not difficult to see why they compliment each other so effortlessly. It’s not about major and minor scales, they somehow complete two very opposite emotions. Katia, bringing a touch of red with her Louboutin stiletto has a dramatic stage persona that approaches the piano like an animal in trance. It’s surreal and supernatural to see the instrument surrender to her hands. Her counterpart, Marielle, brings to life the deepest and darkest side of the composition in a calm, precise and most of all meditative manner. Their eyes always staring at each other, as if severing this connection would bring about utter destruction. The audience under their spell… “It takes time to control the piano for it’s a very strong instrument but you have to, otherwise it will fall apart. There are no limits to what you can achieve by playing it and yet there is a little bit of suffering that I guess it’s part of our world and any other artistic expression. It’s a moral and physical pain, like a dancer who’s got his own body as an instrument but the moment I go on stage it all fades away. There is definitely a dark side to this all and we need it in order to reveal light and find a balance. This is a permanent game we have to play otherwise we’ll live in a superficial state of joy or sadness”

marielle sola

Photo by Umberto Nicoletti

The secret for achieving this level of consciousness and be a channel rather than the bearer of the darkest emotions is discipline. I expected it to be part of this equation but Katia and Marielle found freedom through it that allowed them to experiment with classical music like no others. “It’s always a fight against something, even freedom! People who can do whatever they please are not really free or interesting. True freedom is being able to be disciplined in your work that sustains your artistic freedom. The more you work, the more you’ll arrive on stage so prepared that you’ll fell like you are recreating that piece as if it was yours rather than just playing it. Almost as if you are improvising Mozart! The music you play is not a fruit of your hard work anymore; it’s just like a piece of art speak for itself to you. This happens only because the painter has worked so much before and this is a kind of discipline that comes from our mother.”

Writer Hanif Kureishi once wrote in Gabriel’s Gift through the voice of a father “if you’ve got it, you’ve got it from yourself, and don’t you forget it. You can inherit an old tie but not a gift, that’s one thing I know” It may not be written in stars or in the family tree but can talent be just a sheer coincidence when it comes to Katia? “The quote is so terribly true. He’s right, you can pass on so many things, like education for example which is very important to your personal growth by the way, but when it comes to talent we are talking about a gift; you either have it or not. No matter how hard you work this quote remains very true. On the other hand, talent with no hard work and discipline is useless and a sad condition because it’s not enough. We learnt a great deal about discipline from our mother, she was a role model in that regard, she would know if one day, for example, I wasn’t training properly and it took her a few words to let me know. Practice and hard work is the engine to make your talent running otherwise it will just stay there, switched off.”

At such a young age and seen the extreme experimental nature of their projects, I imagine a rebellious duo and two daughters who, just like anybody else, have a conflictual relationship with their mother. “I wouldn’t say we were rebels in our growing up. When teenagers started rebelling we were already in Paris on our own, studying at the Conservatoire. You know, we grew up in a small village and our mother made the best she could. Since she was a teacher she understood us but when we reached a certain level she knew she couldn’t keep us at home anymore as it would have equaled to kill us. If she wanted our talent to grow and blossom she’d had to make this sacrifice and let us go. I was 13 and Marielle was 11. We weren’t rebels because we chose to be musicians; it was our passion and what we wanted. We did not argue with our parents’ choices because we knew it from the start what an incredible sacrifice they were doing. We have been lucky at the end of our studies to be able to make a living on our own immediately, going on tour with a dance ballet. We actually had a very wonderful and easy relationship! Life itself was hard. It was tremendously sad for us not being able to see our parents so often. My mother came to visit us in Paris whenever she could but still it was hard moving away from the basque coast; that was the country we were in love with, its beaches, its sea. Paris was not our city.”

Luck literally came knocking on the door on day during their years at the Conservatoire. “We were playing Visions de L’Amen by Olivier Messiaen and he came in wondering who was playing his music. It was normal for us back then to be playing in front of him but it was actually a turning point for us once we recorded the piece. Thanks to that moment people got to know us.” The eagerness that made them want so much to perform as a duo is the same they use to promote their foundation that among its artistic committee includes Madonna, Placido Domingo and Italian writer Alessandro Baricco “He’s a great friend of ours who welcomed us in of the rooms of his Scuola Holden to shoot a project on Tina Modotti. Director Nathalie Joffre and actress Dajana Roncione worked on this project to honour the life and work of Tina who was such an incredible photographer and revolutionary. There was a lot of research involved and we made this short film. Madonna is a friend of ours and we introduced her to the basque Kalakan Trio who eventually went on to follow her during the MDNA Tour. I believe in and support them as much as I can. We are interested in people whose worlds are about the continuous research of ways to experiment. Every artist brought us closer to another and this is extremely interesting. Miles Davis was doing the same thing, he brought people and artists in the same circles so that they could learn a lot from each other. There is too much individualism at the moment in society. You’ll always have commercial products and works anyway at it’s fine because this is something so far away from our world that we don’t feel any sort of competition. I only wish more people would be exposed as much in regards of classical music, and I do want to believe that this is possible.”

Where only the love of a mother can gift her own daughters to follow their talent even if it means living apart, dealing with record companies was an even more painful matter. It tested them in how far a “difficult artist” could go. “Many things changed so quickly in the music industry that there’s no time to adapt and for artists like us it has never been easy. The classical repertoire for piano duo is not a well-known thing to begin with, probably the most famous one is by Mozart but even fans of classical music aren’t quite aware of it as much as they are with Chopin or Liszt. We love playing Poulenc, but once again he is not considered that much as part of a pianist’s classical repertoire. It wasn’t easy for record companies to deal with us and in the end it was always up to Marielle and I to decide what to do and what to play.” Taking the road less travelled by rewarded them once again. Instead of continuing with Philips Record, they finally started their own record company “It was not a nasty divorce but we could just could not picture anymore their projects in our world. When you are young you need someone to look after you but in our case it’s fame that helped us achieve many things. People got to know us and supported us so all of this became possible. I find it natural having created our own record company and helping different artists from different artistic worlds that we feel so close to us. There are already many foundations in the classical world of virtuosismo that help the best violinist, or pianist. Our aim is to also support artists beyond our world because nowadays’s music is electronic. I’m not saying that it’s done without classical instruments, on the contrary, but if you look at Radiohead for example, they are genius. They create a world of acoustic and electronic guitars to add a certain sensibility to electronic music as we know it. If you do this as well as they do the result is mesmerising.”

Someone said that classical music will never ever cease to appeal in human history, and it’s not even rare to see how modern authors turn to it. Haruki Murakami uses classical compositions as metaphors and to create emotional landscapes in his novels. His epic work 1Q84 actually open with Janáček’s Sinfonietta playing on the radio of a taxi. “The thing with music is that you have to love it first of all and not trying to understand it, that will happen later on if you want to. The problem with classical music is that people are not exposed to it; it’s not that they don’t love it because music is so direct and immediately speaks to you. People think that in order to enjoy classical music they have to be clever and sometimes they’re afraid they won’t get it but this is just confusing. Media are not helping with this, nowadays it’s all about pop or rock music which by the way I love; Radiohead are one of my favorite groups and very important musicians. Even though classical music is the music I was born with, I always like when it comes into contact with contemporary music. It’s a paradox but maybe contemporary music is the most difficult to understand and love immediately. If you make a kid listen to Ravel’s Bolero or The Rite os Spring, he gets it and loves it. A kid is not afraid because fear comes afterwards, when you grow up and you’re lead to believe that classical music is conceived as something elitist. It didn’t find its way yet, it still suffers from prejudice and it’s not well divulged. A lot of people are trying to work towards that direction but classical music, I believe, needs to be part of children’s education in particular since school. It’s important to divulge and it should start when you are a child. Of course if you then want to play Mozart, knowing his historical context, the architecture and instruments of those times helps a lot. When we played on a fortepiano from his time it made us understand deeply his style and we found a new way of playing beyond the limits of the instrument. It’s exciting and to me, knowing how to deal with your emotions and control them is at the basis of my drive.”

I’m interested to know how their inspirations come about when choosing a theme to explore and experiment with and most of the times it has got to do with artists or movements that challenged common thinking. “Minimalism for example is an extremely important movement in music history for me. It may very well be the greatest revolution of the last century because it opened the door for rock, pop and a different way of making cinema. Everyone from Brian Eno to Radiohead got in touch at least once with minimalist’s principles. It was a kind of music that wasn’t well received at the beginning and so we recreated the same kind of atmosphere that Yoko Ono created in her loft. We gathered with different musicians in our studio, improvised a lot and discovered many things along the way. It’s an endless project because there are endless possibilities and it all started with our friend Igor Toronyi-Lalic who asked us to play in a minimalist festival at London’s Kings Place, even though we had never played that music before. We are always looking for something new, if we wanted we could have played Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue all our lives. Don’t get me wrong, I love it but you have to move on. Recently we have been working on new projects that we are excited about like The Bernard Hermann Concert Project that includes arrangements of Hermann’s music. He was such a great composer who scored many fantastic films by Alfred Hitchock. We are also working on a project about Moondog and his world on NYC’s Sixth Avenue. He used to dress up as a viking and wrote incredible music. A documentary about him is coming out soon. Philips Glass took him under his wing and also Steve Reich was greatly influenced by him. We’ll perform this project as part of Kings Place’s Minimalism Unwrapped programme and it will include also music by Glass and a modern piece from David Chalmin. We want to investigate and show how Moondog inspired Glass but also young composers. He used to live on the street and he was an incredible talent.

We are also doing a project with one of Madonna’s break-dancers Yaman Okur who invented a particular style of dancing. It will be inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and it’s called Star-Cross’d Lovers; the music for this ballet has been exclusively written by David Chalmin. It’s a contemporary Romeo and Juliet for seven break-dancers, two pianos, electric guitar and percussions premiering in May 9th-10th at Paris’s Philharmonie 2 followed by Luzern Festival and later on Dortmund and Bordeaux” Shakespeare’s  timeless theme of impossible love has been a source of inspiration for both Chalmin and Okur who, together with Katia and Marielle, managed to break down yet another barrier. On one side, Chalmin shows how rock music, Minimalism or electronics can coexist with classical pianos and in doing so, he paves the way for contemporary music to be closer to pop music without being elitist. On the other hand, Okur is free like his body movements to bring break-dancing from the streets to concerts halls as a piece of art that can be written, choreographed and danced alongside classical soloist. Chalmin’s ability to build bridges between different musical universes has found the perfect chemistry in allies like the Labèque sisters and when this alchemy gets in touch with a visionary choreographer like Okur, these universes collide and come together to create a new symphony that is the very essence of experimentation. Love and hatred through fluctuating dancing, two romantic pianos inspired by Schubert or Chopin, and rock explosions between Capulet and Montague all find a common ground in this unconventionally conceived and produced project.

“Not that I’m surprised but you looked beautiful on stage tonight” I tell her as we meet backstage and find out that fashion doesn’t go unnoticed in the Labèque universe. “It’s really important even in our world because once you walk on stage you are already making an impression. Maybe this is one of the reasons why the classical world has to learn a lot from the pop-rock scene because that world presents itself in an appealing way. The way you look on stage is also a form of respect towards your audience.” Katia, wearing a purple velvet long jacket tells me about her love for Riccardo Tisci, “it’s not about the fashion house for us, it’s about the designer. If Riccardo was to leave Givenchy one day we’ll follow him.”


Photo by Umberto Nicoletti

As Marielle is on her way to sign autographs for the fans already in line I need to tell Katia how impressive it was to see them on stage and ask her about a piece that expresses her unity with Marielle. Just like a breath mark, a pause that does not affect the overall tempo, her answer brings everything back to the beginning: to family and those memories of their mother taking them to see Ravel’s birth house before treating them to cake and chocolate. “It would be Ma Mère L’Oye by Ravel and his music in general that we grew up to. He’s a special composer to us and our mother’s teacher was a dear friend of him. I think it reminds us of our childhood that is always inside of us; we never lost a connection to it. Yes, we are adults now but you have to keep that world inside of you alive. When I sit with Marielle in front of the piano I always feel something gripping my heart as soon as we play the first notes. It’s very important to me and I think it has got to do with being always amazed towards life. Everything may keep on falling in a routine but it’s important to keep alive that part inside of you that is always in awe. It also helps you recognise what you have before your eyes. People are too blasé nowadays.”

Throughout yet another year’s packed schedule, the Lebèques are performing at the end of May the world premiere of a new Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra written for them by Philip Glass. Commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, this double piano concerto will then be performed in France, Turkey, Sweden and Spain. The influential master composer said – “Like many people involved in today’s music I have long been an admirer of Katia and Marielle Labèque’s performance of traditional and new concert music for duo pianos. I was very happy to hear their brilliant playing and interpretative skills with my own music – first with the 2007 work, Four Movements for Two Pianos and then, more recently, the Two Movements for Four Pianos. This last work was premiered by the Labèques along with additional pianists Dennis Russell Davies and Maki Namekawa. I was very pleased when they suggested a new work – the present double concerto.” This project promises a new way of experiencing the relationship of the soloist to the orchestra and since both Glass and the Labèques always seek inspiration in the unusual and unexplored, the music of the soloists will be shared between the two and the orchestra will serve to extend the range and color of the soloists.

Katia and Marielle Labèque make an impression even when they walk away from the venue and looking at them, talent is not only in the movements of their hands, the knowledge of their minds, in their fighting spirits and the exposure to music within their family. Talent is as hard to describe as the reason why a soul choses to come to life in a certain body. Reason may tell us that the Labèque future was inevitable, but when our heart is touched by their passion, talent is nothing more than “seeking the echo rather than the refrain and preferring discovery to repetition.” Their uniqueness won’t be repeated even with their DNA but Katia has her own “piece” to pass on to the future “The only thing that can make you strong is years of experience and love for music. It’s the willingness to hand down to someone your knowledge.


Katia and Marielle Labèque nel album ‘Sisters’ is out now on KML Recordings

Official Website

KML Foundation

Twitter @KMLabeque