French Piano Duo

The spirit of the Duo - Isabelle and Florence Lafitte

Isabelle and Florence Lafitte are sisters and twins. So much for the anecdotal information, which the press offices never fails to take up. But, leaving beside the incidental facts, they are also part of a restricted world, that of the duo for two pianos, rare and little known because it makes demands, terrible demands, on the players.

The duo does not so much bring together two personalities, accumulated and associated like two demi-pianists made into a single whole; rather it is an entity as rich as an orchestra, as intransigent as a string quartet, uniting every single day in the constant effort to perfect a sound, which must then be developed in the service of the works performed.

Thirty-six years of such labour, and thirty years of concert performance: that is the measure of the Duo Lafitte’s career to date. At the outset, they had to learn to play together, work through rhythms to find their common pulse. Not uniform, common. Like a long-term relationship in which, at the last, each partner develops individually within the pattern of common growth. The emancipation is interior, musical.

The vibrant piano duo learned to assume a stern, terrible character when squaring up to an orchestra: the France National Orchestra, the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra, the Toulouse Capitole Orchestra, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, the Royal Flanders Philharmonic Orchestra, the Belgian National Orchestra … The Mozart and Poulenc concertos, naturally, but also many other, rarely heard works.

The repertoire is truly immense. Unfazed, indeed attracted by its immensity, Isabelle and Florence Lafitte have explored it, often as pioneers, desiring new places and going to them. Their repertoire has progressively expanded. Once over the hurdle of Milhaud’s Scaramouche and Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, they played a Petrarch Sonnet by Liszt directly from the manuscript score, since it had been neither published nor played in modern times. They have created a data base of more than seven thousand works for two pianos, and are still looking for and enquiring after others. Nothing stimulates their playing more than the new pieces which they commission or which Isabelle writes herself.

When asked for concert programmes, they respond with a willingness to leave the trodden paths. The wealth of neglected material which they lovingly restore to performing order has become the core of their militant efforts on behalf of music for two pianos. The duo passion motivates their quest.

The public has been quick to recognise their value, for the piano duo is nothing if not spectacular. It does not possess the fierce intimacy of the piano duet, instead revealing itself always as a moment of intensity, sculpted by the vibrations of two giant instruments.

Major concert venues throughout Asia and Europe (Concertgebouw – Amsterdam, National Concert Hall – Taipei, KKL – Luzern, Musikhalle – Hamburg), or in America have welcomed and anxiously awaited the duo’s performances as prestigious events in the musical calendar. They possess an almost instant capacity to merge with the space at each venue, in performances that are to be watched almost as much as listened to.

It is then that the twinship of Isabelle and Florence Lafitte attends the viewer’s gaze, as in a game of spot-the-difference; but hearing takes the upper hand, unsealing their temperaments, their magnificent service to music.