The Duo Lafitte
When, at the age of 13, they first began giving concerts and broadcasting on France-Musique, they discovered the joy of sharing in a musical dialogue between two pianos. It was the start of a lasting rapport dedicated to the repertoire for ‘two pianos and more’. Born into a family of artists, sculptors, painters, architects, engravers and poets, the sisters spent their early years in Provence. It was an unusual childhood, devoted to art and without regular schooling, at the foot of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire painted by Cézanne.
They were still children when they decided on careers as concert pianists. At the age of 7, Isabelle began to develop her compositional and improvisational gifts. This led to her enrolling for classes in music theory and composition, in which she excelled as a junior pupil, gaining many accolades, and at the age of 15 she was admitted as a member of the French performing rights society SACEM. Florence concentrated on her voice, training as a singer in Budapest and New York. In France, they gained places at the newly-founded Conservatoire in Lyons, an establishment which cultivated a unique and privileged relationship between a restricted number of pupils and its outstanding teaching staff. The course was a revolution on the French music scene of the time, with an expanded curriculum that included the History of Art and Civilisations, Ethno-Musicology, Improvisation…
This intense formative experience qualified them to receive several years of support from the French government, including a Lavoisier excellence grant: at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, behind the ‘Iron Curtain’, they were plunged into a musical, human and social experience that bore the marks of a turbulent and dramatic history. Later, in New York, they became involved with jazz and electroacoustic music, studying at the Manhattan School of Music in a state of symbiosis with the intellectual fervour permeating that great metropolis. In a context so rich in creativity and multi-cultural cross-fertilisation, they began to become aware of the full extent of the repertoire for two pianists. The initial result was to begin compiling a catalogue of over 10,000 compositions, partly available on-line from their website, which provides many duo performers with material for their recitals.
The French composers Karol Beffa, Tristan Patrice Challulau, Michel Delplace, Michel Legrand, Alain Louvier, Patrice Sciortino, Pascal Zavaro and the American Paul Brust have written pieces especially for them, which they have performed as world premieres in St. Petersburg and in Miami, Florida, as well as on tour in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Indonesia. Captivated by the music of Bali, they brought the work of the pioneering and unjustly neglected composer Colin McPhee to public notice in their concerts in Russia and Taiwan. This kind of musical research is important to the Duo Lafitte, and is carried on in transcriptions of works entrusted to them by others (Schubert and Mozart by Jacques Drillon) or completed by Isabelle (Schumann and Mozart for the Orange Foundation; Falla for the Festival de la Chaise-Dieu; Sheherazade by Rimsky Korsakov and Stenka Razin by Glazunov for the centenary of the Hanoi Opera House). Isabelle has also herself composed music for the Duo, writing the ballet score Nega/c/tive B.D., commissioned by Japanese choreographer Ryuichi Arisaka and performed in Russia, France and Serbia.
Isabelle and Florence Lafitte have designed and staged ‘sound and light’ concerts. With the filmmaker Marika af Trolle they have made films that have been presented in Canada, Bulgaria, Ireland, the USA, Japan and Sweden, featuring their performances of Schubert and Grieg (with the Cullberg Ballet), Mozart (an award-winner on the Fuji Television Network in Japan), Rachmaninov…. On French State television, the Duo has been featured by presenter Alain Duault, in a programme dedicated to their transcription of The Magic Flute.
Brought up in an artistic family, Isabelle Lafitte was 7 years old when she discovered composition and improvisation, realising immediately that this new joy would be her path in life. She joined SACEM, France’s professional association for musicians and composers, at the age of 15. For Japanese dance company Agua-Gala she composed a ballet for two pianos, Nega/c/tive B.D., performed at the Avignon-based festival Les Hivernales. This commission received support from performing rights society ADAMI and the Val de Marne Departmental Council. For Duo Lafitte, Isabella Lafitte transcribed for piano duo a pair of arias from Manuel de Falla’s La vida breve, as well as the symphonic poem Stenka Razin by Alexander Glazunov. She also completed a version for piano duo and five voices of Robert Schumann’s oratorio Paradise and the Peri. With her sister Florence she co-wrote a transcription of the principal arias of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute and an adaptation for piano duo of Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite Scheherazade.
Links towards articles on Isabelle Lafitte and composition :
SACEM Article Isabelle Lafitte
Florence Lafitte was seized by music through the emotional impact of song. From a young age she threw herself into the study of classical singing, training in Budapest with Boldizsàr Keönch, head of the singing department at the Franz Liszt Academy, later in New York with Adèle Addison, Chair of the Voice Department at the Manhattan School of Music and a celebrated performer of the role of Bess in George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and lastly at the Aix-en-Provence Conservatoire in a class led by Robert Andreozzi. She is the literary spirit of Duo Lafitte. A passionate devotee of musicology, she conceives and writes the Duo’s concert programmes.
The spirit of Duo
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, Novell Hall - Taipei, KKL - Luzern, Mausikhalle - 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.
The Duo Lafitte
Jacques Drillon, Musicologist and journalist with Le Nouvel Observateur
« I have known Isabelle and Florence Lafitte for twenty-five years, both personally and in a professional capacity. I’ve heard them play, worked with them and spent a great deal of time with them, indeed I’ve even collaborated with them myself, having written a number of transcriptions for two pianos that they have played and recorded. As a result, I’ve long since learned to admire the way they approach their profession, and also their musical role. These are two pianists who have sacrificed their personal careers to take up the cause of that rare and demanding combination of instruments, the piano duo.
The repertoire is huge, ranging from Bach to contemporary composers. It is also of exceptional quality: the sound balance of two pianos playing together is perfect, comparable to the string quartet in terms of strength and subtlety, and as a result the duo has attracted the greatest writers for the piano in every era since the instrument was invented: Bach, as mentioned earlier, but also Mozart, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Schumann, Rachmaninov, Ravel, Debussy and, among the moderns, Messiaen, Boulez, Kurtag... The list goes on: Wagner also wrote for two pianos, and so did Mahler. It is not, however, a repertoire that is much played, because pianists with their virtuosity tend, rightly or wrongly, to pursue a solo career. But the Lafitte sisters have worked hard throughout their lives to bring these works, both old and new, before the public, giving listeners an opportunity to enter into a musical world that is absolutely new and exceptionally rewarding.
Such has been their ‘mission’. Naturally, the fact that they are twins has been a help. One has to see them practising together to appreciate fully the degree of intimacy that binds them together. They attack the keyboard in the same way, they think together, their phrasing instinctively follows the same lines, they need only a glance to begin, or to alter pace and dynamics in perfect unison. As they work on a piece their discussions are always lengthy, and can become animated: they may share a common goal, but not necessarily the same idea of how to reach it. Anybody else would leave it be.
They never do. They know that, beyond their love of music, beyond their affection for each other, piano duo technique demands equality of expressive commitment and judiciously measured strength. As long as there are still points of contention, they will argue them. Nothing is left to chance, nothing is left to whichever of the two, for whatever reason – weariness of the argument or sheer fatigue – might first concede. The best solution, not who is most combative of the two sisters, will decide the point.
Once in agreement, they begin in earnest, going deeply into every aspect – sound, touch, line – until all has become clear, like a photographer adjusting the lens until every detail is perfectly in focus. The process involves an enormous amount of work. It is exhausting, but inspiring, too: the results, in terms of effect, simultaneity, balance, elegance, power, are truly extraordinary. Everything has been taken into consideration, everything is ready. Right down to the slightest pedalling, everything has been discussed and decided on once and for all. Even the page-turning moments have been carefully studied so as to avoid disturbing the performance and enable the pages to be turned without the need for page-turners beside the players. And yet – no less remarkably – they each retain their own degree of spontaneity: in actual fact, their ability to accommodate the inspiration of the moment in their playing is only possible because of the firm foundations they have laid. The other sister will react to the new idea with absolute immediacy: it is at moments like these that their experience comes into play, together, once again, with the fact of their being twins. Such freedoms are of course premised on the rigour and strictness of their preparatory work. In this, composers and performers are alike: only through perfect awareness of the rules can they break free of them.
Audiences never fail to respond to these gifts, ensuring a triumphant reception wherever they play. Their listeners recognize them as accomplished, radiant, inspired and happy artists. Even the untrained ear can guess at it, can hear. After all, there is something about extreme quality which is self-evident, something that speaks and secures attention. This is the essence of how music can be communicated to others. Someone once said that heroism is not performing superhuman feats, but merely ‘doing what can be done’. By forming a piano duo, Isabelle and Florence Lafitte each gave up a brilliant individual career. By promoting this wonderful repertoire in countries all over the world, by dint of hard work, tenacity and talent, as well as by the grace of their good-humoured, natural charm, they have done what ‘could be done’, but few pianists have been willing to do. Is that not heroism? »
Par Paul Tortelier
I was struck by their innate musicality, the accuracy of their expression, the quality of their execution which reveal exceptional mastery for such young artists. I was not the only one to be impressed by the twins profound understanding...