Twin sister piano duo debuts on Warner Classics with unconventional ‘visions’

Visions is the title of the debut album on Warner Classics of the piano duo consisting of twin sisters Christina and Michelle Naughton. The title refers most specifically to the major composition on the album, Olivier Messiaen’s “Visions de l’Amen.” However, the “visionary” profession of faith is also evident in an arrangement of the instrumental introduction (called a sonatina) to Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 106 cantata, Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (God’s own time is ever best), to which Bach assigned the subtitle Actus tragicus. The album then concludes with John Adams’ “Hallelujah Junction,” whose rhythms are based on the stress patters of the word “hallelujah.” In this case, however, the connection to faith is more than a little remote, since the title comes from a small truck stop never the California-Nevada border.

“Visions de l’Amen” is the first of three “faith-based” pieces that Messiaen wrote between 1943 and 1944. By way of historical context, Messiaen had been released from Stalag VIII-A in Görlitz, where he composed his “Quatour pour la fin du temps” (quartet for the end of time), in May of 1941. He returned to Paris, where he was appointed Professor of Harmony at the Conservatoire de Paris, where he remained until his retirement in 1978. He composed “Visions de l'Amen” in 1943 to play with his wife, Yvonne Loriod. Shortly thereafter he composed, again for Loriod, one of his largest professions of faith, the solo piano cycle Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (twenty gazes upon the child Jesus). The third of the pieces, Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine (three small liturgies of the Divine Presence) was composed between November 15, 1943 and March 15, 1944. It is the one departure from chamber music, requiring a women’s chorus, an orchestra (without winds), ondes Martenot, and a highly demanding piano part, written, again, for Loriod.

All three of these are meditative pieces, taking different elements of the basic liturgy and viewing (gazing at) them from several different directions. In the “Visions de l’Amen,” Messiaen distills all of his religious thinking down to that one affirmative word. “Amen” is a Hebrew word that means, literally, “so be it, truly.” It concludes every prayer precisely because it is such an emphatic declaration of affirmation. Messiaen’s “visions,” however, do not dwell on those prayers. Rather, they are “gazes upon” the works of God, beginning with Creation itself. Furthermore, those “visions” embrace not only “things” of the sort enumerated in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis but also emotional dispositions, including desire, judgment, and the agonies suffered by Jesus in the account of the Passion in the Gospels. Then, almost as a summing-up, the final vision is one of consummation, in which the “theme of Creation” in the opening movement returns.

Those who know Messiaen know that he can pack quite a lot of material into one of his compositions. Indeed, the density of much of his work is so great that recording technology can not yet do it the justice it deserves. Only in performance can one appreciate not only the thick overlay of thematic content but also the extraordinarily broad range of dynamic levels, from the barely audible to the fortissimo outbursts intended to convey the awesomeness of the Divine Presence. On the other hand, because the music is so complex, one really needs to be prepared before listening to it in performance. If one does not go in with a few fundamental points of orientation, so to speak, one runs the risk of getting lost in a chaotic maelstrom.

This assertion is based on personal experience. It was only by becoming familiar with both the “Visions de l'Amen” and the Vingt regards that I was able to keep myself oriented when the opportunities to listen to these pieces in concert presented themselves. In that respect the Naughtons have provided a recording that definitely serves this purpose. Between their technical mastery of the many demands that Messiaen has imposed and the skilled production work by Warner Classics, beginning with the decision to make the recording at the WGBH Fraser Performance Studio in Boston, this album provides all that one needs to get to know Messiaen’s “visions” before experiencing them in concert.

The Adams offering, on the other hand, is more of a romp. Here, again, there is a fair amount of complexity, particularly in the rhythmic patterns; but it is all in good fun. As in “Grand Pianola Music,” scored for two pianos, orchestra without strings, and three vocalists, Adams makes no bones about being prankish; and the Naughtons definitely knew better than to be shy about that prankishness.

More interesting is the Bach selection. The music was originally composed for two flutes, gamba, and continuo; but the Naughtons perform an arrangement by György Kurtág. Those familiar with Kurtág’s original compositions know that he has his own reputation for prankishness; but in this particular case he seems to have been committed to providing the listener with a listening experience that is very much in the spirit of the original. The only really noticeable change that he imposes is some register shifting to provide a clearer account of the echo work between the two flutes.

All this makes for a highly satisfying debut album, leaving the seasoned listener wondering what other projects the Naughtons are likely to undertake.

Flaco ZacariasComment