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February 23, 2014 9:05 pm
In the middle of Thursday night’s Queen Elizabeth Hall concert, somebody from the back of the auditorium began to scream. It temporarily halted the performance and the musicians walked quietly off the stage. A few minutes later they returned to complete a rapturous rendition of Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro, one full of shimmering sensuousness.
It’s a testament to the dignity and professionalism of the musicians that the rest of the concert continued in exactly the same spirit of joyousness in which it had started, with no plunge in mood whatsoever. Together with the pianist sisters, Marielle and Katia Labèque, select members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment brought verve and a freshness of approach to repertoire that, though appealing, is by now well-trodden: French works ranging from Debussy’s Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune to Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals.
The tone was set in the Labèques’ first offering: a hauntingly delicate, immaculately refined reading of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, in its original version for piano duo. This piece calls for featherweight fingers, and the sisters barely seemed to touch the keyboard. But what was even more remarkable was their utterly instinctive response to this music, and to each other – a response honed by their near life-long artistic partnership.
It was put to more flamboyant effect in Carnival of the Animals, which united them with the OAE players. Rather than attempting to duck any sense of the juvenile, the musicians embraced it wholeheartedly, embodying Saint-Saëns’ musical menagerie not only in sound but also in physical gesture. What emerged was a carnival in the best sense of the word, a joyous, carefree romp in which the actor Samuel West, dressed from top to toe in leopard print, declaimed Ogden Nash’s idiosyncratic narration.
Without the Labèques, the orchestral musicians fared equally well. They brought sharp focus and clarity to the Sachs/Schoenberg arrangement of Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune, making its harmonic colours glow afresh like a precisely cut gemstone. But they seemed to enjoy the next item even more: Ibert’s Divertissement, a work brimming with high jinks, quotations from other pieces, and tongue-in-cheek humour, particularly when delivered, as it was here, with unflinching panache under the baton of Eduardo Portal.
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