“Piano Duets” = MENDELSSOHN: Allegro brilliant in A Major, Op. 92, for piano four hands; BRAHMS: Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 56b, for two pianos; MOZART: Sonata in D Major, KV 448, for piano four hands; SCHUBERT: Allegro in A Minor, D 947, for piano four hands, “Lebensstürme” ; FALLA: Danza española No. 1 from “La vida breve” for piano four hands; RAVEL: La Valse arranged for two pianos; LUTOSŁAWSKI: Variations on a Theme of Paganini for two pianos – Christina and Michelle Naughton, piano duo – Orfeo C 859 121 A, 78:39 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
This is the debut recording of the Naughton twins, Christina and Michelle, who have been playing together since the age of four and whose schedule is probably busier than ever since the twins graduated from the Curtis Institute a couple of years ago. There, they studied with such luminaries as Gary Graffman, Claude Frank, and Seymour Lipkin.
As with many recordings I’ve listened to lately, the booklet notes are in the form of a series of interview questions, which makes sense on one level given that this is the twins’ first album. It would still be useful for listeners to have information about some of the pieces on the program, especially the Mendelssohn and the Schubert (with its suggestive nickname) but also the Brahms and Ravel, so much better known in their original orchestral garb. The Op. 56b designation indicates that Brahms made his own two-piano reduction. Ravel also made two-piano and even a solo-piano reduction of La Valse, which is difficult enough for two pianists to tackle; the solo version must be nigh impossible.
As for the Mendelssohn work, the Naughtons explain that Mendelssohn was one of the first composers they played together and add, “Mendelssohn makes us desperately wish that more great composers had siblings and friends with whom they like to perform duets!” Hear, hear! But the back story to the duet is more interesting still. Mendelssohn quickly composed it in 1841 for a benefit concert given to support the pension fund of his own Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. However, it was also a vote of confidence for his friends Clara and Robert Schumann, who had just been dragged through the mud by Clara’s father, Friedrich Wieck, during the court case in which the couple won the right to marry without Wieck’s consent. Mendelssohn and Clara gave the premiere performance, after which the piece lay unpublished until 1851, when it appeared shorn of its Andante opening. Fortunately, the Naughtons choose to play both parts of the piece. The Andante sounds like one of Mendelssohn’s tenderer Songs without Words, but the Allegro offers one of those elfin fast movements that Mendelssohn seemed to turn out so effortlessly ever since his teenage years (e.g., Rondo Capriccioso in E Major, Op. 14). In fact, this could be Exhibit A in the case usually brought against Mendelssohn: that he didn’t mature fully enough as an artist. You won’t hear any such complaints from me, however. This is a graciously written, highly enjoyable piece by any standard.
The Schubert work is from the final year of his life and may be the first movement of a projected sonata for piano four hands, of which the Rondo in A Major from the same year may just be the projected finale. Or maybe not. In any case, both are wonderful pieces; the Allegro in A Minor glows with dark fire through most of its course but also gives us one of those radiant second melodies with which Schubert seemed to say that all is not storm and stess in life. And that brings us to the nickname—Lebensstürme (“Life’s Storms”)—which is not Schubert’s own but that of Anton Diabelli, who published the work in 1840, twelve years after Schubert’s death. Diabelli probably hoped to increase sales by attaching a sensational moniker to the work.
I’m very pleased with the performance of both these pieces, very different though they may be. The Naughtons capture all the youthful vigor of the Mendelssohn, all the bleak drama of the Schubert without a seeming change of gears. The Falla and Lutosławski pieces are short enough to be encores, but they’re thrilling ones, especially the Lutosławski, and receive dashing performances here. Much more demanding, given its length, virtuosity, and interpretive challenges (it is, after all, a tone poem with nothing less than the collapse of an entire culture as its storyline), is the Ravel; the Naughtons handle the challenges admirably, working the piece up to a suitable frenzy of whirling entropy at the close.
Inevitably, with a program that covers so much musical ground, there are a couple interpretations here that aren’t top drawer. Compared, for example, to the celebrated performance by Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu (Sony), the Naughtons’ Mozart sonata seems overly polite. There is irony in one statement the Naughtons make, but there may also be an explanation of their approach. When speaking of the influence of Gary Graffman, they state, “he has a way of giving a suggestion that from the outside may seem like a method of exercising musical restraint, yet this supposed musical restraint often ironically leads to the unleashing of utter abandon and virtuosic freedom.” Clearly, in this case more abandon and less restraint is just what the Naugthons’ Mozart needs.
The Brahms receives a finer performance, I think. But even here there is a lack of nuance in some of the variations; a lack of real fire where that’s called for, such as Variation II (Più vivace); and somehow a lack of cumulative power, which is a great hallmark of this music, as it builds inevitably to its noble conclusion.
I don’t want to end on a sour note, however. There is much here to admire and enjoy, not least the clean, naturally balanced recording from the recital hall of Bremen Radio. After all, this whole enterprise bodes well for the future of the Naughton twins, and given the general excellence of the current recital, we don’t have to speculate further about how things will turn out for them. [I also liked that whether each selection is for two separate pianos or for piano four hands is stated in the title of each one, whereas many piano duo albums omit this information…Ed.]