Ludmilla Guilmault is in a white suit, shimmery shirt underneath. Patent leather shoes catch the spotlight and her dark glasses reflect the keys of the Yamaha grand piano at the auditorium of Alliance Française de Madras; her stage avatar reminiscent of American pianist Liberace.
With his long hair and wan looks brought on by a bout of hospitalisation the afternoon of the concert, Jean-Noel Dubois resembles a biblical prophet.
She is 38, he 44. They sit beside each other on the bench and play the keys on the same piano. She is dramatic, he is calm. The hum of the air conditioner is replaced by the sweet notes of Brahms permeating the evening like clouds of perfumed incense.
The French duo, named after virtuoso Hungarian pianist and composer Georges Cziffra, has been together since 2007 and won the Cziffra Foundation gold medal. In the years since, the musicians have performed across the world arriving at a certain level of skill.
When I meet Guilmault earlier in the day, it turns out to be an exercise in both music discovery and language navigation. She speaks little English and my French is beyond rusty. But her hands on the piano reveal the dissonances, the imaginative colours that unfold at dramatic speed and the rich timbre of the music chosen for the evening.
Guilmault, a Parisienne of Spanish descent, learnt to play the piano at four from her grandmother, an accomplished pianist. She also learnt the oboe, but it is the piano she spends most of her day with. “I practise for 12 hours,” she says. Guilmault and Dubois met under extraordinary circumstances at an exhibition for old instruments in the French capital. “I was wandering around when I heard a piano being tuned followed by a beautiful burst of music. It was Dubois. I had found my musical partner,” says Guilmault, adding that both of them also pursue successful solo careers.
The duo was on their first visit to India with concerts across the country; Chennai was the second port of call. By evening, Dubois, who lives in Limoges and has been playing the piano since he was seven, has recovered enough to perform splendidly. “Ahead of a concert, we get together for a week to practice,” says Guilmault. “We hold master classes, perform solo or conduct workshops the rest of the year. I’ve always dreamt of visiting India, especially Calcutta, ever since I knew of Mother Teresa.”
The concert repertoire lays emphasis on the magnificent marriage of folk tunes and classical music. So, the bear dances of Hungary are juxtaposed with the reeling mazurkas of Chopin. “Most of the pieces were written for two pianos, but it is more fun to play a duet on a single piano,” says Guilmault.
The programme opens with solo acts by Guilmault and Dubois. She plays a rippling melodious Brahms ‘Intermezzo opus’ beautifully; he plays ‘Gnossiennes’, a series of dances by eccentric French composer Erik Satie, with passion. He follows this with ‘Gymnopedie’ by the same composer, a melancholic harmony that was a contrast to Satie’s jazz standards of the 1920s. The duo comes together to play a string of pieces starting with a Hungarian dance by Brahms and ending with Satie’s ‘Cancan Grand-mondain’.
The playing by both pianists surmounted every technical detail. A musical canon of double octaves, chord clusters and dancing semi-quavers were unleashed on a rapt audience. It is not often that four hands find perfect space on the keys to showcase their own acrobatics. Guilmault and Dubois did that well, navigating a kind of music, that, unlike the interview, was not lost in translation.