Concert Review: Sister Act — The Naughton Piano Duo at Rockport

By Aaron Keebaugh

In truth, recordings don’t capture the Naughtons’ symbiotic flair — the performance at Rockport revealed them not only to be a superb piano duo, but a significant cut above.

Christina and Michelle Naughton performing at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. Photo:

“There are times I forget we are two people playing together,” pianist Christina Naughton once said about performing with her twin sister, and fellow pianist, Michelle. This comment would strike anyone who has listened to their 2019 recording of piano duos by American composers as an understatement. Listening to the sisters’ performances on disc leaves one wondering: what is their secret to playing such a wide range of repertoire with such remarkable expressive uniformity?

Could it be the sound editing process? Finding the ideal acoustics? Or could it be some hidden, twin-sister superpower?

Hearing the pair live, as I did at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival last weekend, rules out the relevance of the first two questions. But that last hypothetical — essentially a crazy jest — suggests that something uncanny may be at work. Practicing to the point of perfection is one thing. But the pair’s mastery of interpretative cohesion is something else entirely.

The sisters’ program of Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Ravel, Albéniz, and Mozart covered their usual wide ground, ranging from palpable angst to terpsichorean zest. The duo didn’t treat the pieces as opportunities for showmanship. These were deep conversations held between tensive polar extremes: the music was fiery, passionate, yet firmly balanced, with no single side overshadowing the other. In truth, recordings don’t capture the Naughtons’ symbiotic flair — the performance at Rockport revealed them not only to be a superb piano duo, but a significant cut above.

Christina and Michelle each possess the kind of sparkling technique that allows them to trade rippling scales and florid passages with natural ease. What was most arresting about their performance of Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos was the sheer tonnage of their sonic presence. Weighty and reflective and everything in between, their blended sonority lent an almost orchestral dimension to this music.

This was a Rachmaninoff to relish, the pianists’ restive exuberance generating all the requisite demonic power needed for the opening movement. Phrases darted back and forth between the sisters like lightning through the clouds — distant flashes charged with energy. The second movement’s waltz also coursed with frenzied panache. The third movement was lush, even profound — lines zipped up and fell in dark waves. The finale rose to an appropriate furor; the middle section gave the performers a chance to lean into their virtuosity without resorting to self-indulgence.

Debussy’s little-heard En blanc et noir further revealed the pair’s penchant for Sturm und Drang. Composed at the onset of World War I, the suite could be seen as the composer’s war sonata: the music conveys his conflicted feelings over Europe willfully descending into madness. That said, there are moments of uneasy certainty over what is seen elsewhere in the piece as an unnecessary loss of life: the second movement, for one, was dedicated to Lieutenant Jacques Charlot, who had been killed in battle. Yet the clamorous dissonances that surround a quotation of the Lutheran hymn “Ein feste Burg” is intended to turn any ideals about the glories of heroism on their head.

The Naughton sisters performed the score with grandeur and reverence. Still, a sweeping undercurrent could be detected; the cascading figures in the first movement roiled with a quiet urgency. So, too, did the bristly harmonies of the second, which rang out with bell-toned exultation. There were even unexpected moments of levity in the finale, where the lines danced playfully, if a tad skittishly.

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite delivered a calming departure. “Pavane of Sleeping Beauty” was searching via a focus on its tonal warmth. “Little Tom Thumb” flowed with a welcome silky finesse that smoothed over its meandering lines. “Empress of the Pagodas” beamed with limpid vitality. Chords chimed and rang clearly; the pianists’ pearly touch cast the echoing phrases in a radiant light. The “Conversation of Beauty and the Beast,” played out as a waltz, flowered beautifully, everything culminating in a harmonic haze. Adding sonic heft to “The Fairy Garden” amped up the vitality.

“Triana,” from Isaac Albéniz’s piano suite Iberia, proved a rare treat. This short piece, like the rest of the two-volume set, paints colorful impressions of Andalusian Spain. The Naughton sisters seesawed between Lisztian bravura and zesty Spanish rhythms with infectious vibrancy.

A similar zeal also ensured that the concert’s opener, Mozart’s Sonata in D Major for Four Hands, K. 381, would dance — as any Mozart should. The composer likely wrote this score for his own family duo. (He routinely played duets with his sister, Nannerl.) The Naughtons, seated side-by-side, performed the composition with the warmth of a clan sing-along. They did not choose to turn up the heat technically, though they tore through the  rapid scales at the opening. Leaning into a heavier presence in the development movement tipped the music toward darkness.

The second movement flowed congenially, the music retaining its whirling vitality. Throughout, their performance sang via a nuanced dialogue: one sister unfolded left-hand undulations; the other floated a sweeping line overhead. The finale of the Mozart exuded humor and gusto in equal measure. Though it was warm on the surface, their reading was mercurial: passages would burst forth with momentum one moment and ease back into a hymnic calm the next. And, like the rest of this program, the fun never let up.

So, what exactly is the source of the Naughtons’ power? Their gentle encore — of György Kurtág’s arrangement of Bach’s “Gott durch deine Güte” — offered a vital clue. Perhaps, in the end, it all comes down to a simple and loving act of sibling cooperation.

Aaron Keebaugh has been a classical music critic in Boston since 2012. His work has been featured in the Musical Times, Corymbus, Boston Classical Review, Early Music America, and BBC Radio 3. A musicologist, he teaches at North Shore Community College in both Danvers and Lynn.

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