A journey into the human soul
By Angélica Daza Enciso
Sisters Michelle and Christina Naughton answered one of the questions that they were asked in an interview about the concert which they gave today with this phrase. That is how they define "music". And we could say that this definition fits very well with the concert we attended tonight in the music hall of the Luis Ángel Arango Library: A journey into the human soul. These young American performers, who have just released their second album,Visions, proved themselves to be musicians of the highest quality. They performed pieces by J.S. Bach, J. Brahms, O. Messiaen and J. Adams with finesse and elegance. The "two pianos" format is always astounding, but even more so when the performers are twin sisters. They have developed a sort of "secret language" after all these years playing together, they explain, and this mutual understanding and magical symbiosis, placed at the service of musical performance, produces wonderful results.
They first performed a chorale prelude by J.S. Bach that takes its title from cantata 38:Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir ("Out of deep anguish I call to You"), which had been announced as the second piece of the program. It is a chorale prelude in which the cantus firmus of the melody from the old Lutheran chorale can be distinguished, harmonized by Bach for the organ and subsequently transcribed for piano four hands. They then performed the prelude to cantata 106, Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit ("God's time is the very best time"), which had been announced as the first piece on the program. This work, also by Bach, is commonly known as Actus tragicus, and was composed for funeral ceremonies. Both pieces were arranged by G. Kurtág, the Hungarian composer and pianist, in 1910, to be played on piano four hands with his wife Marta.
The third piece was also a chorale prelude, but this time by J. Brahms: Herzlich tut mich verlangen ("My heart is filled with longing"), known as the "Passion Chorale" since Bach's time, as it formed part of The St Matthew Passion. Based on the cantus firmus of that chorale, Brahms wrote a chorale prelude for the organ that would later be transcribed for piano four hands by Ferruccio Busoni. Brahms wrote little music for the organ, so it's striking that toward the end of his life he returned to writing pieces for this instrument. Indeed, this opus, number 122, would be his last composition.
In the first two Bach pieces, the continuous base and funeral march could clearly by distinguished, contrasting with the melody which was originally performed using recorders. The different voices of the chorale prelude for the organ could also be heard as if the performers were singing each voice in their heads. Their faces expressed an intense experiencing of the music in each of these pieces. In the piece by Brahms, the composer's pen could clearly be discerned. Underneath the classic form of the chorale prelude, the romantic sensitivity of his writing remains. Faced with the question of how they would define these pieces, the Naughton sisters answered with a single word: "joy". Although these pieces were composed for mournful occasions, there is certainly an aura of hope and serenity around them. Even though they are dramatic and strongly expressive, they are also reflective and sincerely optimistic.
The novel part of the concert was the Latin America premiere of the piece Roll over Beethoven by the American composer John Adams (born in 1947). The composition reuses the title of a piece written in 1956 by Chuck Berry, but Adams' music is full of direct allusions to Beethoven, with rhythmic and melodic passages that we were able to distinguish through the complex tapestry of sound. The performers had already played a piece by Adams for two pianos, Hallelujah Junction, and the composer wrote this piece for them last year. Their performance was dazzling, dynamic and very agile. The fine allusions to Beethoven were astounding, you could feel how they were experiencing the music they played. The communication between them, in this case separated by two pianos, was full of subtle complicity.
The last part of the concert was dedicated to a masterpiece in the repertoire for two pianos: Visions de l'Amen,composed by Olivier Messiaen in 1943 upon returning from the prison in which he was held for one year during the Second World War. The piece focuses on an exploration of the meanings of the word“Amen”. Messiaen's religious sentiment is well known, and is reflected in his compositions with a spiritual, rather than liturgical, purpose, as they were not used to form part of any religious service. A pianist by training and also an organist, Messiaen is one of the most iconic French musicians of his generation. The rhythmic, melodic and harmonic games included in his compositions are the fruit of an exploration of oriental music and his love of birdsong or Gregorian chant, as well as the contemporary music of his time.
Visions de l'Amen is divided into seven parts, representing seven different scenes: amen of the creation, amen of the stars, amen of the agony of Jesus, amen of desire, amen of the angels, amen of the judgment and amen of the consummation. Intensely descriptive, in it we hear chime bells, trills, a cry of agony, the trumpets of judgment day, a song of glory and the dance of the planets. It's a complex piece whose full meaning is felt upon seeing it performed live, as it's easier to imagine the different scenes and follow their progression, drama and theological message.
The concert aroused the enthusiasm of the audience. The performers responded with an encore, a piece called “Boogie” by Paul Schoenfield, an American composer born in the same year as Adams who has stood out as a pianist and composer. Schoenfield is known for his recurrent use of American and Jewish folk melodies in his classical compositions. In this piece for piano four hands, whose title alludes to a very popular American rhythm, the Boogie-woogie, the piano writing is nothing less than astounding. The virtuosity of this piece, precisely performed by the Naughton sisters, was an excellent way to end the concert.
Christina and Michelle Naughton's performance, as well as being impeccable, left the public in awe. The level of concentration of the performers captured the audience's attention, and without doubt transported them on a wonderful journey into the human soul.