Ladies in Blue Debut at ISGM

by Vance R. Koven

An auspicious local debut on March 10th at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum came in a duo-piano program by Christina and Michelle Naughton, 24-year-old identical twins from Madison, Wisconsin, by way of the Curtis Institute and a three-year touring career, a good part of which was in Europe. They offered a wide-ranging recital—just the ticket for a proper introduction—the scope of which would be hard to discern from the limited information the ISG provided on its website. Also, in part to make up for deficiencies in the program notes (i.e., there weren’t any), for the benefit of any perplexed audience members we will do a bit more background on the pieces than might be strictly necessary for a review. And speaking of proper introductions and limited information, for the benefit of those of the (full house) audience who don’t know the duo personally or weren’t able to ask them after the concert, Christina was the one in the dark blue scoop-necked gown, while Michelle had the dark blue off-the-shoulder gown. Apparently, these twins are given to pawky pranks such as wearing identical clothing, so we were a bit lucky for these small distinguishing elements.

They began with three works for piano four hands before settling in to the two humongous Steinways (lids off to project upwards to the three balcony levels in Calderwood Hall) in the bulk of the recital. The first was Mendelssohn’s Andante and Variations in B-flat, op. 83 (for the benefit of the charming woman who complained that the minimalist program didn’t give dates of composition for anything, this one was 1841), which was published posthumously in two- and four-hand versions. While not as formidable a piece as the Variations sérieuses, this is no fluff: the theme, chorale-like, is run through variations whose growing independence from the chorale’s thematic structure builds on Beethoven and foreshadows the “character variation” technique used by Brahms and later composers. The Naughton sisters demonstrated from the outset the emotive, communicative, fluid playing they retained throughout, with body English, facial expressions, sensitive touch, supple dynamics and elegant phrasing all contributing to the sense of there being one four-handed performer.

Next was a jolting change, in the early Sonatina (1941) by Conlon Nancarrow (1912-97), originally for solo piano but arranged for four hands by Yvar Mikhashoff. In Kyle Gann’s extensive study of Nancarrow—a composer famous for his many studies for player piano to give expression to the “inhuman” rhythmic complexities he favored—Gann observed that the solo piano version of the Sonatina (a droll title under the circumstances) was so hard that Nancarrow eventually did cut it as a piano roll. The Naughtons demonstrated that Mikhashoff’s arrangement was not only playable, but with verve and power made a splendid case for its inclusion in standard four-hand repertoire: it’s jaunty, frequently jazzy, bluesy in the slow movement, and toccata-like in the finale.

The Schubert Allegro in A minor, D. 947 (1828) has the subtitle Lebensstürme (storms of life), which was not Schubert’s title but one bestowed by Anton Diabelli years later; it was also, like Mendelssohn’s op. 83, posthumously published. It seems to be an opening movement for a sonata that Schubert either abandoned or just ran out of time to complete in the last year of his life. We’d like to think it was the former: while it has some fascinating technical features, mostly in its arrangement of keys and themes in blocs, to our ears it is not of the same caliber as most of his late output, somewhat lacking in the pathos amid gaiety for which the term “Schubertian” was coined. It’s still Schubert, though, and nothing bad can come of that; it’s full of grace and the occasional bouts of storminess, which the Naughtons carried off with complete assurance.

Now sitting in opposition, where they could so to speak keep an eye on one another, the Naughtons ended the first half with Darius Milhaud’s flashy suite Scaramouche, op. 165a (1937). The music came originally from Milhaud’s incidental music to Charles Vildac’s play after Molière called Le médecin volant, a score composed for clarinet or saxophone and piano. The two-piano suite begins with a famous movement in which the instruments take full advantage of Milhaud’s bitonal idiom. The Naughtons conveyed its brittle jollity with high-stepping staccatos. The gentle middle movement is anABA form whose outer sections use one piano (alternatingly) to accompany a one-handed melody in the other, while the central section is mellow and lush. We approved of the Naughtons’ restrained pedaling here. The finale is even more famous than the opening movement, being some of Milhaud’s best Brazilian-inspired writing, of a perhaps more touristy sensibility than what native composers like Villa-Lobos produced, but nevertheless with evident affection and respect. The Naughtons brought it off with flair and bravura, with rhythmic sureness and punch.

The second half of the program commenced with the afternoon’s earliest work, Mozart’s well-known sonata in D major, K. 448 (1781). This is the one written for Mozart to perform not with his sister, but rather with his (evidently very good) student Josephine von Aurnhammer, and is the one that figured in the studies with epileptics that gave rise to the “Mozart effect” that only a few other works can produce. Musically, it’s not one of Mozart’s deeper works, though it has numerous interesting details. The Naughtons’ performance of the opening movement, while assured and idiomatic, was not as expressive or dynamically nuanced as their other playing; fortunately this improved in the other movements, with commendable delicacy in the slow movement and dappled high spirits in the finale. The glances the sisters exchanged in the last movement only heightened the sense of good cheer.

The “big kahuna” piece of the program followed: the original two-piano version of Brahms’s Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn, published misleadingly as op. 56b (1873). In perfect parallel to the Mendelssohn that began the recital, these are variations in B-flat on a chorale melody—not, as we now know, by or even set by Haydn. Nobody yet knows for sure who wrote the wind serenade that contained the St. Anthony Chorale that so caught Brahms’s eye with its five-measure phrases (Pleyel has been mentioned but never conclusively proven). The piece is familiar enough in its orchestral version not to require description, but the chief virtue of the two-piano version, apart from having allowed it to be more widely played in its time, is the ability, perfectly rendered by the Naughtons, to clarify Brahms’s use of hemiola and other cross-rhythms, notably in variation 2. The ladies in blue carried this monument of historically-informed Romanticism as they did everything else, with technical brilliance and emotional directness, broken only by the cell phone—to whose owner a basket of sonic raspberries are due—that marred the end of variation 7. We were impressed by the well-gauged dynamic intensification in the finale, leading to a blossoming of rich sonority. One thing we did notice, though, was an utter absence of rubatos, an excess of which is terrible but a little of which would not be inappropriate for even the austere Brahms.

Instead of ending with the Brahms, the Naughtons closed the formal program with another modern gem, Witold Lutosławski’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini (1941), in which the Polish master (another centenarian this year, 1913-94) tackled what so many greats had already done to perfection, the 24th Caprice for solo violin—starting with Paganini himself, going through Schumann, Liszt and Brahms, and as recently as Rachmaninoff in 1934. In the 1970s, Lutosławski turned out a concertante version. Lutosławski’s was a more than fitting addition to the canon: brilliant, spiky, joyous. Lutosławski originally wrote these to stock up a piano duo he had formed to eke out a living during World War II with his countryman Andrzej Panufnik. Despite its populist appeal, the compositional technique Lutosławski used presaged the idiosyncratic 12-tone methods he developed later, using stacked intervals rather than serialism. The Naughtons were all over it, full of pizzazz, showing off brilliant passagework and flashy coloration. For an exuberantly receptive crowd, they furnished as an encore Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 18.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.