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The Pianist With Two Brains

Katia and Marielle Labèque keep the piano duet from sounding like a piano duel.

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Katia and Marielle Labèque are world-renowned masters of the classical piano duet, a unique musical discipline requiring 20 fingers, 176 keys and absolute emotional and interpretive unity. It's an approach defined by seamless subtlety.

In the blizzard of notes in their renditions of Debussy (the album "En Blanc et Noir"), it's impossible to tell where one player's part ends and another begins. Even when the two pianos can be individually distinguished, the musical lines flow fluidly between them.

It's a high-wire act; even the slightest slip would destroy the illusion of a single voice — in contrast to a jazz duet, in which one player lays down a bed of chords over which the soloist can improvise. The Labèques are totally engaged every moment, whether limning misty complexities of shimmering textures or hammering out precise, crashing fortissimos.

Their shared expression is based on a lifetime of intimacy. Born in France, the daughters of a former student of the great impressionist pianist Marguerite Long, they developed an affinity for a wide range of music. Their rapid success was founded on their spirited command of both the classical repertoire and more modern forms, but their dark-haired, gothic beauty was no disadvantage. Virtuosity and glamour proved a compelling combination, and they were launched on their two decade-and-counting career of headlining concerts, playing with symphony orchestras worldwide and covering the full repertoire of piano duo music.

Not that the classical repertoire is extensive. Before 1900 there were fewer than two dozen works for piano duos by major composers (including Mozart, Chopin, Schumann and Brahms). The aforementioned Debussy, along with Stravinsky, Bart¢k and others, led a relative explosion in the 20th century, a movement that has continued into the thornier abstract thickets of modern music.

Fortunately there is a wide selection of candidates for transcription — full orchestrations written for dozens of instruments that can be rendered down to something that can be carried off by four hands. The Labèques' transcription of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" was their first big hit, going gold shortly after its release. In addition to playing the classical sources, they've performed two-piano adaptations of songs from "West Side Story," Scott Joplin rags and commissioned pieces.

To support new music and attract new audiences, the sisters have formed the KML Foundation, whose projects include "Across the Universe of Languages," a multimedia reinterpretation of The Beatles, with Katia on grand piano and Fender Rhodes and her frequent collaborator Viktoria Mullova on violin. The eclectic Katia, who was once married to jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, also has two jazz CDs to her credit and the distinction of having Miles Davis name a song for her. (The song, complete with prelude, is on "You're Under Arrest.")

On her Web site (www.katialabeque.com), Katia recognizes the differences between improvised jazz and interpretive classical music, but rejects the idea that there is a barrier between the two forms. "The only way to learn is to be confronted with new music, music that's not part of your roots," she says. "That way, you learn more about yourself, about your capacity, about transforming yourself, and about being open."

Mozart, Schubert and Ravel, rather than Lennon and McCartney, are on their Richmond program. But for the Labèque sisters, it's not about when the composers lived, but rather about bringing their music to life. S

VCU's Mary Ann Rennolds Chamber Concerts series hosts a performance by Katia and Marielle Labèque at the Singleton Center May 5 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10-$25. 828-6776.

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