16 Oct 2003
Isabelle and Florence Lafitte treated an audience already spellbound by their sunny ease and generosity to a moment of pure bliss. Rarely has the piano been such a felicitous instrument as on the stage of the Vichy Opera House, last Tuesday evening.
How marvellous music can be, when played with such commitment and natural energy! A grateful audience called the Duo Lafitte back no less than four times at the close, and for each encore the applause was a little louder still, expressing the intense joy that these two splendid musicians had inspired in their listeners.
Isabelle and Florence Lafitte have a gift. A gift of love for the piano which knows no half measures, either in presentation or in expression. Certainly the twin sisters have not chosen to pursue their performing careers together merely so as to redouble their technical capacity or histrionic effect. Their purpose is simply to work together in spreading a repertoire whose infinite wealth they explore in depth. Equally clear is their intention to lavish on that repertoire the sensitivity of their own artistic and personal approach, encapsulated in the image created by their black dresses, cut to a highly contemporary design and worn with straightforward elegance under the mauve and orange stage lighting.
The same approach could also be detected, clear-cut and harmonious, in the programme. The two pianists opted for a succession of highly characteristic pieces, all from the 20th century. Two were variations around celebrated operas, while three were the result of the inspiration of Spain on French composers, Bizet, Chabrier and Ravel.
The only deviation from an otherwise attractively uniform set was by Pascal Zavaro, a composer born in 1959. Listening to his Gazoline Music, however, with its occasionally almost Gershwin-like atmospheres, it was easy to see that the piece was far from being an accidental choice: it appeared fully in the line of descent from those that followed. Gershwin himself was present, too, in the shape of a miscellany from Porgy and Bess reprised by Percy Grainger. Few classical musicians are capable of taking on the popular import of Gershwin's material, but here Isabelle and Florence Lafitte gave it a heart-rending performance of astounding clarity and sharp relief. They made the accents and colours of its street-wise language ring out, allowing the song and the swing to breathe freely.
The search for truth, at the heart of any piece, took the form of a corrida in Emmanuel Chabrier's España. The listener was tempted to shout out an "olé!", so strong was the impression of being in the arena. For the Rapsodie Espagnole, on the other hand, the two musicians left any folksy effects behind in the dressing room, preferring to underline the destructuring progression so dear to Ravel.
Quite conquered, the audience cried out for more. The response from the Duo was generous even beyond its expectations. After a spirited passage from Darius Milhaud's Scaramouche, which they were called on to play twice, the Lafitte sisters turned to a piano duet, the Snoopy Valse. This piece, based on a highly attractive theme, was written by Isabelle for Florence and dedicated to her dog: "a souvenir from our travels; Snoopy has visited no end of countries on our tours". Then came the parting gift. A work by Liszt, of which they are the sole performers. His Nocturne after Petrarch's Sonnet No. 104 once lay undiscovered in the Weimar archives, with a hundred or so other scores. A magnificent moment, of absolute dedication. Out of which emerged that very special silence, when the last note fades away, which is itself "a kind of music".