This is the first CD to be released on the Labeque sisters own label and it’s a hoot. They decided to go back to their roots in the French Basque country where they had spent their childhood. Though Ravel only spent the first three months of his life there, he returned often, spoke the language, and was greatly influenced by Basque culture.
Of course half of the Basque country is in Spain and French composers seem to have done the best job of capturing the Spanish flavor in concert music, so the first of the two suites here – though not especially connected to things Basque – starts proceedings in the most colorful manner. It’s the two-piano version of Ravel’s Spanish Rhapsody. In the Mother Goose Suite the movement for Tom Thumb makes use of some specifically Basque time signatures and rhythms. The recent Argerich & Pletnev recording of the Suite is a gem and an SACD, but the Labeques version is somehow even more sparkling.
It is in the concluding Bolero that the Basque angle is really stressed by the Labeques. They engaged a percussionist from the Royal Concertgebouw and others to play several native Basque instruments in the work, which adds an individual sound to the warhorse and makes it one of the most unlistenable Boleros I’ve heard. This 100% percussion ensemble does an outstanding job of standing in for the entire symphonic percussion section – after all, pianos are percussion too. There is the atabal tiny side drum, the txepetxa – made from half a walnut shell – the ttun ttun, a drum with six gut strings, the txalaparta – a beam struck with mallets – and an iron and steel instrument called the tobera. Unlike some two-piano recordings, the two pianos are clearly separated. One is left center and the other is at the right speaker together with what sounds like a snare drum. Combined with the all-stops-out attack of the Labeques on their twin pianos, this Bolero is more fun than the standard symphonic version! As it builds up to its big finish, I was reminded of the percussive savagery of The Rite of Spring.
– John Sunier