The Labèque sisters revive haunting melodies from the Basque country
The rich culture of the proud and ancient Basque people is sadly underexposed outside their homeland, a remote bi-national region where Southwest France meets northern Spain. Their language, Euskara, is a world in a bubble with no relationship to other living languages. Most outside interest in recent decades has sprung from the sometimes-violent Basque independence movement.
Basque music, however, does travel well across cultures, and is worth a detour. The French sisters Katia and Marielle Labèque, born in Bayonne, grew up with Basque melodies and lyrics in their ears. Now an established two-piano duo, their new CD (KML Recordings) Amoria” groups14 disparate pieces of Basque music they researched over several years. It is a departure from their usual classical repertoire.
Marielle describes the project as a “homage to a country I loved, and increasingly so now – ‘Amoria’ comes at the right time in our lives.”
Listening to this CD is like a journey from the 16 th century to the 21 st. Katia says the musical traditions of the Basque people gave the program a certain coherence. “The roots of the music … are extremely deep,” she told Bordeaux music writer Séverine Garnier. (Full text of Ms. Garnier’s interview, first published in the Bordeaux newspaper Sud-Ouest, appears at the end of this review in my translation.)
The CD opens with the haunting “Con Amores, La Mi Madre”, memorably sung by Spanish counter-tenor Carlos Mena in his own arrangement, accompanied by the sisters on two pianos. He also plays an interlude on the silbote, a Basque flute. The effect transports the listener to the heart of the Basque country.
To my ear, “Agota”, a popular lament, reaches the heart most deeply. The Labèques worked with several arrangers to achieve the most attractive colorations. Again the counter-tenor tessitura of Carlos Mena brings an unearthly beauty to this version.
French composer Maurice Ravel, an adopted Basque himself, conceived his popular “Bolero” in 1928 on the Côte Basque, borrowing the syncopated rhythm from Spanish traditions. In this CD performance, the Labèque sisters have taken Ravel’s original piano version and added Basque percussion backup. The pianos carry the familiar melody from one-finger minimalism to a dissonant fortissimo climax as sweeping as any full orchestra performance.
Another Ravel composition, “Kaddish”, dates from 1914 when he lived in St. Jean de Luz. It is the opening of “Deux mélodies hébariques”, sung in lyrics that combine Hebrew and Aramaic by Mena, accompanied by Katia Labèque.
Ms. Garnier’s recent interview was the first publication of the sisters’ intentions behind this unusual project. They met in Saint-Sebastien, Spain, where they performed the program for the first time in public.
Séverine Garnier: “Amoria” comes as a surprise – it’s not quite Bach or
Marielle Labèque: “Amoria” is a very personal journey through the melodies of the Basque country, ranging from the magnificent pages of the Baroque era to those of Alberto Iglesias (composer of music for the films of Pedro Almadovor.) Most of these pieces were unknown to us. Obviously Basque music is not limited to this path we traced. The repertoire is extremely vast. There are development possibilities from every century. Katia has done an immense job of
research with Thierry Biscary (singer and percussionist) at Eresbil.
Katia Labèque: It’s a music centre on the French-Spanish border where written Basque music – over the centuries -- has been assembled. Most of it is categorized, that is, there is only a melody and a code allowing you to imagine an accompaniment, a principle that applies to most ancient music. “Con amores le me madre”, a song from the 16th century of Joanes Antxieta, has been
arranged by counter-tenor Carlos Mena. And Elena de Murgui Urreta has adapted the “Sarabanda” of Bernado Zal Galdeno, dating from the 17th century, for viola da gamba and four-hand piano. As for the popular songs, such as the famous “Agota”, there was only the melody so we worked with several arrangers to get different colorations.
SG: This has been a rather ambitious project, hasn’t it?
Marielle Labèque: Yes ! Merely from the point of view of logistics, “Amoria” was complicated. We did the recording in Rome, we worked in the studio of the arranger David Chalmin in Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle, in the Basque country with the children’s choir Escolania EasoAraoz Gazte and at Elkar, the great studio Saint-Sebastien for Basque music. Before that, we had to get ourselves
organized, choose scores, work our way through them, keep some, reject some…
SG: This same kind of work would bring together Couperin, Berlioz, Chopin –
very different composers. How can a unity of style be achieved in your project?
KL: The connection is achieved through the musical traditions. The roots of the music in the Basque country are extremely deep. Composers have been inspired by this very ancient culture, up to a certain period. There was a rupture in the 21 st century. We have had difficulty finding contemporary composers who kept to the traditions of the 19th century composers such as Pablo de Sarasate, Padre Donostia ou Jesus Guridi.
SG: And Maurice Ravel?
ML: He was our starting point. He was born in Ciboure and loved the Basque culture. He listened to the singers and knew the instruments. And especially important, he spoke Euskara. During all the time we played Maurice Ravel, I never doubted that he defined himself as a Basque musician. He had met Padre Donostia …
KL: Donostia is a very important figure in Basque culture. This priest collected hundreds of popular melodies, as did Guridi, one of the big names in local music. But to be honest, there is no musical link from one piece to another. The link is in the love of the traditions of the region. This is why we wanted so much that the premiere be performed at the Quincena Musical de Saint-Sebastien at the Kursaal, one of the finest halls in the area.
SG: You included a Basque version of “Boléro” …
KL: Yes and it was very well received. People were skeptical at first, and so were we. Because we thought, like many people, that Boléro only works as an orchestration. But it’s magic, and the two-piano version written by Ravel is magnificent. Yet something was lacking. Little by little, as we developed the percussion parts with Thierry Biscary and his Helgiak ensemble, we became
convinced. When Ravel started writing Boléro, he was on the Côte Basque. He had the sound of the atabal and the txistu in his ears. On our CD, we used Ravel’s words about the Basque country. No one defines better what we think about this territory.
SG: Did you grow up in Basque culture?
KL: As children we did not speak Euskara – Franco had banned the language -- and we left Bayonne very young, at 11 and 13 years of age, to pursue our studies in Paris. Nevertheless, thanks to our father, our childhood was full of Basque songs passed on from generation to generation. The Basques are a very proud people. Our father went out of his way to preserve his culture. I find that very beautiful.
ML: Our father adored the Basque choirs, as did Luciano Berio. Berio was very close to our mother, and when he would come to visit, he asked to hear Basque songs. Basques cannot stop themselves from singing! This is why the CD is so vocal.
SG: Is “Amoria” a return to your origins?
ML: I wanted to produce a homage to the country I loved, and increasingly now. Basque roots are very strong. “Amoria” comes at the right time in our lives.
KL: People say that Basques always come back home. They are big travelers, yet it’s true. This program is a way of returning to our roots. We hope to take this project on tour, perhaps in reduced form – it’s difficult to travel with 55 children !
SG: And Euskara?
ML: A bit, but it’s a very difficult language. When we are all together, the musicians speak Euskara among themselves.
KL: The language is very important but being born in the Basque country also confers an identity. We have played with the greatest orchestras, the greatest conductors. We are now at an age when we want to please ourselves, performing with people we like and admire, and with whom we share a real complicity. In the “Amoria” team there is a real spirit of solidarity. The Basque country provides this quality.
You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:
“Portraitures and caricatures: Conductors, Pianist, Composers”
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