American Postcard


By Csengery Kristof as published in magazine “Elet es Irodalom

There are those who think that one of the most successful piano duos of our times are twins. However, the Labèque sisters were not born at the same time: Katia was born in 1950 and Marielle in 1952. For decades, they have been world-famous and not by chance: their play sparkles with virtuosity and possibilities.A decade ago, another piano playing sibling duo conquered the classical music audience: Christina and Michelle Naughton. It is not a coincidence that they look as similar as two peas in a pod: unlike the Labèque sisters, they are really twins. They were born in Princeton (New Jersey), raised in Madison (Wisconsin) and now they live in New York. They are of partly Chinese and American ancestry, and their first piano lessons were given by their mother, and their tertiary education took place at the Curtis Institute and the Juilliard School. Their teacher at the latter institution was Joseph Kalichstein from the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson trio, also known to Hungarian concert visitors.

I had previously had the opportunity to write a review of one of their albums of outstanding quality (Visions – 2016) which included Messiaen's  Visions de l’Amen cycle, the sonatina from Bach's Actus tragicus and John Adams' Hallelujah Junction which selections show extraordinary awareness. Their new album, the American Postcard continues along the designated path. The approach at work behind such anthologies represents the view that the selection for an album should be coherent; place alongside works that interact with each other; and, above all, even though unspoken, suggest something to the listener. This CD contains two pieces by John Adams (1947–) and two pieces by Aaron Copland (1900–1990), two by Paul Schoenfield (1947–) and two by Conlon Nancarrow (1912–1997). That is, purely American music, four-handed and two-piano works, which are typically new world due to their openness and diversity. It is not worth elaborating on how energetic and enthusiastic the two pianists' playing is; what abundance of colors it displays; what brilliant technical performance characterizes it; and what kind of visual power radiates from it. This surely does not need to be proven to those who have heard them before. But that is not the reason why this album is interesting - it is a natural attribute of the Naughton sisters' work, as they are world class musicians. What is worth noting is what the pieces placed next to each other on the album say.


The first important thing to say is that American music had and still has its own folklore just as Hungarian music had it in the time of Bartók and Kodály and their followers. Listening to this album, we realize that for many American composers it has a very similar function to the one of traditional songs, folk songs, gospels, and also jazz and popular music.  We are made aware of that by Paul Schoenfield in his five-movement cycle with the title of Five Days of the Life of a Manic Depressive  in which the numerous light music interpolations in the movements appear as references or frivolous-ironic quotes. This is what Aaron Copland also expressed in his piece El Salón Mexico with the Latin dance music of the South (of which Leonard Bernstein, Copland's younger friend and student, wrote the two-piano version), music which this piece uses, transubstantiates and at the same time apotheosizes. The proof of this is the other Copland piece of the album which includes one of the shaker religious community's folk song in variation form (Variations on a Shaker Melody ). And this phenomenon is illustrated by Conlon Nancarrow as well, who became famous mainly for his piano organ etudes, in his Sonatina with its jazz and blues effects. The album makes it clear that American music is just as eager to feed off its various folklore as national schools of European music in the past (however today hardly at all or not at all).

Another suggestion: certain numbers on the album give the impression that American music does not mostly (or at least not often) speak of itself and for itself, but rather tends to reflect on something else, which is one of its definitive features. John Adams, in his piece of crushing and wild energy, Short Ride in a Fast Machine almost reinterprets and re-evaluates the trend and the minimalism with the repetitive technique introduced by the American composer generation which preceded him and was represented by Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Frederic Rzewski. This piece is also minimalist, but in a different way (in a simpler and more sophisticated way), and it is also repetitive, but again, in a different way (seemingly simpler, but also according to a quite subtle system), and represents Adams' link to tradition, and at the same time, keeps the wheel of progress in motion. The other Adams piece which playfully borrowed the title of the 1956 Chuck Berry song (also sung by the Beatles)  Roll Over Beethoven (untranslatable pun: "let's get over Beethoven" - but of course there is rock and roll as well: "let's rock and roll on Beethoven") reflects Adams' great theme - Europe, i.e. European tradition. This is an ironic-intellectual point of reference in Adams's music. Here, in String Quartet 2 , in the version adapted for two pianos, Adams considers Beethoven to be "raw material" which he uses for "building" when his music again and again evokes fragments of op. 110 Piano Sonata in A Flat Major of the Diabelli variations in altered form, composing from them and arranging around them a whole different sounding music, based on a completely new system of interrelations.

Flaco Zacarias