Pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton arrived at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival Thursday evening with 20-fold dizzying fingers pairing Mendelssohn and Brahms, Fauré and Ravel, Nancarrow and Milhaud. Praise had already reached the highest levels, going so far as to compare the duo to the best of our time. Word is getting around, the waterfront venue nearly packed to the gills.
All but perhaps one of their selections are well-known to duo piano enthusiasts. To open, Mendelssohn’s two-movement Andante and Allegro in A Major Opus 92 sang with heart tuned to a sky where clouds could dance the day long. With but one piano, and as if with one pianist, the Naughtons, crisply tracing and chasing glints of sunlight, of off-gray, launched an inviting duet. (Witness it at the left.)
The only possibly unfamiliar selection on the identical twin’s program, Colin Nancarrow’s Sonatina, here morphed from an original two-handed make into an astonishing four-handed remake. The Naughtons may have made such a choice, given their recent venture recording works of Olivier Messiaen and John Adams. High-speed all the way may be another reason, Nancarrow keeping pace with their fast-moving hit parade of favorites. Move over, the duo demanded, darting across keys, hands crossing lanes in the outer movements. Yet, the machine-like synced digits had us noticing, in successive blinks of an eye, the bright intellectual fabric of the Sonatina. With the blues-chasing Moderato, these twin pianists had us following a weaving in and out of motives, such was their intensity. (Witness it in the YouTube example below right)
With this sister duo, Fauré’s ever popular and veritable piano duet, Dolly Suite, veered from French charm to pursue a more artistic construct. Accompanying material went near-whisper soft in the Berceuse in an attempt to provide some relief. There and elsewhere, what is melodic often took sharp-edged turns. It could be said that the Naughton’s Dolly was just no mere kid’s stuff. Dancing material, as in Kitty Valse, gave way to linear design, while the concluding Le pas espanol worked at effectively raising sensations akin to finales.
Speaking briefly, the duo thought of one piano four hands as feeling music the way most of us do. Considering the distance between two pianos four hands just as in life, challenges emerge.
On the road again, this time with Darius Milhaud’s Brazilian encounters, his Scaramouche, Suite for Two Pianos broke out of the intermission via the Naughton duo. A boisterousness in Brazileira opposed a tenderness in the duo’s conscious contouring of the folkish Modéré. Had Shalin Liu ever reached such smashing levels of amplitude?
Born a two-piano work before the more familiar orchestral version, Variations on a Theme of Haydn received its first performance by its composer, Johannes Brahms, and dearest of friends, Clara Schumann. As with the Mendelssohn, the young duo looked for ways to shed new light on the familiar. But with the Brahms, Romanticism lessened, Classicism heightened, restraint beckoned. A sobering Haydn theme, emphatic contrapuntal textures especially one piano imitating another, came into view closeup by way of the Naughtons.
One of Ravel’s best-known oeuvres, a brilliantly orchestrated La Valse, came to be a two-piano duo in the composer’s own hand. Would the Naughton’s recreate what Ravel describes in the forward to his score? “…we can distinguish an immense ballroom filled with a whirling crowd. The glow of the chandeliers shines to a full splendor. An imperial court ball, circa 1855.” The elements of dance found their way in this iteration, curiously almost a tango at times. The Naughtons delivered kernels of revelation here as elsewhere.
For their encore, the unexpected (new to me), an early Mozart Sonata in C Major for four hands, but which Mozart remains to be determined. No daintiness, all stoutness from the duo.
What a show! Given my perspective and theirs differing at times, it appears, even so, that my attention never—absolutely never—wandered. What a trip, full of fun!