Naughton sisters dazzle Washington in Terrace duo-piano recital

Naughton sisters dazzle Washington in Terrace duo-piano recital

Christina and Michelle Naughton. (Credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)
Christina and Michelle Naughton. (Credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)

WASHINGTON, November 16, 2014 – The Naughton sisters, a bright, new pair of young duo-pianists, took the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater by storm last weekend in their initial Fortas Series recital.

Not only did twins Christina and Michelle rock the room with the two-piano, four-hand version of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” kicking off the KenCen’s and the NSO’s weekend celebration of that pivotal modernist work. They also dazzled their enthusiastic audience with passionate but well-planned and nearly impeccable performances of Brahms’ “Variation on a Theme of Haydn,” for two pianos, Op. 56b; a two-piano version of Claude Debussy’s challenging “En blanc et noir”; and the “Variations on a Theme of Paganini for Two Pianos” by Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994).

Before they even sat down at the pair of Steinway grand pianos that dominated the modest Terrace Theater stage, both sisters made a striking entrance, attired in geometric, angle-cut dresses sporting contrasting black and white patterns. Not only did they look sharp. They looked thematic as well, as their striking attire was also a nifty hat-tip to the Debussy offering on their program—a slightly puckish but elegant touch.

And in a way, that’s how one might have described the rest of this fine recital: slightly puckish but elegant. Both sisters clearly enjoy getting on stage and making music for an audience. But their refreshing attitude invites the audience to jump in and make the musical voyage with them.

That voyage was launched by the Brahms Haydn Variations, which, as most people now know, are variations on a theme not by Papa Haydn. The tune was attributed Haydn for many years until a relatively contemporary scholar discovered it was actually a popular tune from another source.

But why quibble or even change the title of this popular showpiece. The variations are clever and often of surpassing difficulty. This reviewer has wrestled with Brahms’ piano works for years, concluding ruefully that it would take 12 or perhaps 13 fingers to enable a piano soloist to play all the notes.

But the Naughton sisters tackled the two-piano version of the work with ten times two, delivering a superb performance of the work that alternated subtlety with showmanship, bringing it all home in the flashy finale.

READ ALSO: Twin duo-pianists to perform “Rite of Spring” at the Terrace.

Moving quickly from Brahms’ late Romanticism to the intersection of French musical impressionism at its intersection with 20th century modernism, the sisters changed both the atmosphere and the mood with an impressive and well thought out performance of Debussy’s “En blanc et noir.”

The work was composed late in Debussy’s career as he juggled the twin negatives of the First World War with his own impending death from cancer. It is at once thoughtful, mystical, and at time fraught with anxiety, all signaled by music that pivots Debussy’s impressionism closer to the kind of extended tonality that briefly dominated that period of time before musical experimentation grew to be dominated by the Second Viennese School.

In terms of the evening’s main event, Debussy’s “black and white” composition also looked forward and back on a musical landscape that had been dramatically altered by Stravinsky’s controversial yet ultimately influential “Rite of Spring.” Not surprisingly, the French composer dedicated one of this work’s movements to Stravinsky, with whom he had played the first performance of the two-piano version of the pioneering 1913 ballet.

Somber, thoughtful, difficult, exciting—the sisters captured all of Debussy’s conflicting modes and moods in their performance, delivering one of the best interpretations of the work that we have yet heard.

Capping off the first part of their Thursday evening program, the Naughtons tackled the wicked but brilliant “Variations on a Theme of Paganini for Two Pianos” of Witold Lutosławski. In a recent interview with both sisters, we discovered that part of their enthusiasm for this work was the fact that Lutosławski debuted the work in a Warsaw saloon to earn a few scarce zlotys amidst the increasingly oppressive situation in the Polish capital as it was slowly destroyed in the Second World War.

Given the environment, it’s surprising to encounter in this wickedly challenging work a kind of irrational exuberance, almost as if it were composed as an act of robust defiance of Poland’s desperate wartime destruction and subjugation. Employing the same Paganini tune Rachmaninoff borrowed for his own famous variations, Lutosławski launches his Paganini take explosively, intensifying the mood—with rare exceptions—with each successive iteration.

It’s a genuinely exciting work, and likely a great deal of fun to play as well, assuming the pianists can handle it. Fortunately, the sisters did much better than that, brilliantly capturing the composer’s weird blend of defiance and lightheartedness while sprinting through the work’s presto passagework to emerge triumphantly in the finale without a metaphorical scratch.

After the intermission came the evening’s main event, the two-piano, four-hand version/reduction of Stravinsky’s massive ballet score, “The Rite of Spring.” In our recent interview, Christina Naughton pointed out the major difference between the two-piano and the orchestral versions of “Rite.” Perhaps most obvious is the fact that the two-piano version, lacking all the orchestral colors that were later painted in by the composer, is at times, almost like a skeleton upon which the latter is built.

In keeping with that “black and white” motif,

From a soloist’s point of view, she noted, it is in many ways very different from the full orchestral version. The piano version is “black and white, like a black and white photo, while the orchestral version adds many other colors,” she said. But the piano’s black and white “is just as beautiful and even more, the rhythms and the structure are intensified.”

Michelle agreed. “I think the piano’s black and white approach exposes the bare bones of Stravinsky’s harmony and rhythm,” she said, in ways that are not always obvious in the orchestral version.

This analogy was the key to the sisters’ driving, relentlessly percussive performance of the two-piano “Rite.” It’s a strangely beautiful, marvelous work in its own right. The sisters attacked it by paying particular and careful attention to the strange, halting, yet dramatic rhythms that dominate the work even as they emphasized the percussive side of the piano’s personality.

Their Terrace performance over all was particularly notable for its sheer energy as well as for the remarkably clean approach the sisters took to reveal the folk-melodic lines of this work. These are sometimes buried amidst the primitive clatter and occasional chord- and tone-clusters that characterize much of this still almost shockingly modernist work.

The Naughton sisters’ performance of “The Rite of Spring” proved a genuinely exciting way to end an already exciting evening of two-piano, four-hand music making. Thursday’s audience evidently thought so, too, keeping up the applause and the standing ovation until the twin pianists reappeared to deliver a rollicking, two-piano encore of Darius Milhaud’s jaunty, jazzy “Scaramouche.” It seemed to sum up the sisters’ musical mood, and it brought their highly successful recital to a pleasantly warm conclusion.

Speaking of encores—it occurs to us that the only downside to Thursday’s recital is this: What are the Naughton sisters going to do to top it?

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

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