The piano has as one of its many benefits the ability to be orchestral, if not in color, at least in contrapuntal density and mass.
Small wonder that in the days before recordings made actual orchestral performances available to people far from the concert hall, enthusiasts heard the symphonic works of their day by playing them at home in four-hand arrangements at one piano. We have different kinds of domestic music-making these days, but anyone who’s ever played music this way knows there’s a special kind of intimacy to be had by sitting next to someone as you both bring Beethoven to life.
It’s hard to get more personal and domestic than being twin sisters, and Sunday at the Society of the Four Arts, a large and appreciative audience heard what a special kind of rapport can bring to music in a recital by the American pianists Michelle and Christina Naughton. The Princeton, N.J.-born women, now 28, have huge talent and impeccable training (Juilliard and Curtis), and the program they presented in Palm Beach was dazzling in terms of technique and impressive in matters of interpretive sensitivity.
The first half of the concert was devoted to music for four hands, with the sisters sitting together at one of the Steinways on the Gubelmann Auditorium stage. Dressed similarly in short black dresses with patches of colorful patterns and fashionable black caged sandals, the Naughtons looked ready to step out and go clubbing after their program, which began with Mozart’s Five Variations (in G, K. 506). This is a modest yet brilliant piece, and the sisters played it with elegance and energy, displaying their impressive command of the keyboard.
Franz Schubert wrote several great pieces for four-hand duet in the last year of his short life, and later composers have tried their hands at orchestrating them. The most beloved of them is probably the Fantasy in F minor, but every bit as compelling is the Allegro in A minor (D. 947), which a marketing-minded publisher gave the sobriquet The Storms of Life (Lebensstürme) upon publication in 1840, and no doubt increased his sales thereby.
It’s entirely possible that this work was originally conceived as a symphonic movement, and it requires that sense of strenuous argument that the Naughtons persuasively gave it. They were also very good at lightening Schubert’s sometimes thick textures and giving the music enough dynamic and interpretive contrast to counter some of his long-windedness.
Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, which came next, is best-known in the orchestral guise its composer gave it in 1911 after writing it in 1908 for the children of friends, but it is beautifully effective in its original four-hand version. The Naughtons played this piece with laudable sensitivity and restraint; even in the fiery third movement (“Empress of the Pagodas”), volume remained controlled and rhythm precise, so that it sounded like it fit right in with the other four pieces rather than sticking out.
The second movement, “Petit Poucet,” is the most familiar of the five, but it often falls prey to romantic overindulgence as players dig into its lovely, melancholy melody. But the Naughtons kept the tempo moving, letting the murmuring chain of thirds in the Secondo part float smoothly and mysteriously in the background while a characteristically mournful Ravelian melody unfolds quietly above it. This was a mature and deep reading of the suite, notably so in the closing “Jardin féerique,” with its quietly building, almost hymnlike sound, carefully and beautifully shaped by the twin pianists.
The first half closed with a rarity: the Sonatina by the American iconoclast Conlon Nancarrow, who wrote a substantial amount of music for player piano, and whose death in 1997 came just a little too early for him to benefit from computer programs that could have realized all his sonic visions far easier. This Sonatina, arranged for four hands at a standard piano, is a technically fearsome riot of sound and rhythm that is steeped in jazz and modernism. Its second movement has the lineaments of ragtime and stride, while the finale is a fugue with an outrageous subject put through ferocious contrapuntal paces.
The sisters gave this piece a splendid performance, full of power and exuberance; they were marvelous exponents of this bracing music, but they could not have done it without superb technique, which this Sonatina demonstrated they have in abundance.
The second half was devoted to music of two pianos, with Michelle taking the one at the audience’s left and Christina the one on the right. Two works were programmed, beginning with an early Rondo (in C, Op. 73), written in 1828 as the 18-year-old pianist was preparing for a career on the concert stage. It’s a delightful piece of prentice Chopin, full of the kind of digital display that impressed audiences of his day, but with a crucial difference that separated him from all others, including his future friend Franz Liszt: Superior taste, in which the virtuosity is put to the service of the music rather than the other way around, and a melodic and harmonic style that was already distinctive and wholly his own.
The formal concert closed with the Nutcracker Suite of Tchaikovsky in a two-piano arrangement. Overexposed as this ballet music is, it nevertheless still has power to delight. The Naughtons brought some interpretive subtlety to some parts of this, particularly the “Sugar Plum Fairy,” in which Michelle made her opening sound like a celesta; the sisters played gently with that famous five-note falling scale, originally on the bass clarinet, hesitating just a bit to give it some more flavor.
While the faster pieces such as the “Trepak” and the “Chinese Dance” had plenty of fire, the “Arabian Dance,” which beautifully borrows a Georgian folk melody, needed some more mood; it was played too matter-of-factly to be engaging.
Standing ovations have become standard these days – I can’t think of any recent concert in the past couple years in which some part of the audience didn’t stand – but here the Four Arts audience was truly acclaiming these fine musicians, with vigorous applause and shouted Bravos.
The sisters returned to the single piano for an encore in music of Bach, the prelude (Sonatina) to the cantata Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (BWV 106), written early in Bach’s career, possibly for the funeral of his uncle, and arranged here by the contemporary Hungarian master Gyorgy Kurtag.
The Naughtons seemed to enter something of a trance as they played this surpassingly tender 300-year-old music, letting its repeated half-step figure climb to an emotional peak that brought this very energetic concert to a meditative conclusion.