INTERVIEW – Born in Bayonne, the pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque have produced a new CD, “Amoria”, virtually as a declaration of love for Basque music. We met them at the end of August at the Quincena musical de Saint-Sebastien where they were performing their new program for the first time, prior to their performance at Saint-Jean-de-Luz on Friday September 14.
Séverine Garnier: “Amoria” comes as a surprise – it’s not quite Bach or Gershwin.
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 (Editor’s note: 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 21st 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.
Translation : Michael Johnson