Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Naughton Twins’ “All-American” Album

Christine and Michelle Naughton (photograph by Jack De Gilio, courtesy of Unison Media)

Exactly two months ago, Warner Classics released its latest album of performances by the piano duo of twin sisters Christina and Michelle Naughton. The title of the album is American Postcard, and it surveys works by four American composers. It is perhaps fairest to list them chronologically according to date of birth: Aaron Copland, Conlon Nancarrow, Paul Schoenfeld, and John Adams (the last two born within about a month of each other).

Only one of the pieces on the album was composed for four hands on one keyboard, Schoenfeld’s “Five Days from the Life of a Manic-Depressive.” The Nancarrow sonatina was originally written for solo piano, but it was so complex that Yvar Mikhashoff prepared a four-hand version. The two Copland selections are arrangements of orchestral music, “El Salón México,” scored for two pianos by Leonard Bernstein, and “Variations on a Shaker Melody” (basically an excerpt from the score for “Appalachian Spring”), set for four hands by Bennett Lerner. The two Adams compositions are both arranged by Preben Antonsen. “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” is a four-hand arrangement of the orchestral fanfare of the same name; and “Roll Over Beethoven” is a two-piano transcription of Adams’ second string quartet. This album presents the world-premiere recording of the arrangement of “Short Ride on a Fast Machine.”

Taken as a whole, this is a highly engaging package. The overall disposition is a sunny one, even in the Schoenfield piece, since the composer is particularly gifted when it comes to taking tongue-in-cheek stances. Where the selections are based on orchestral sources, the sonorities are clearly more limited; but those limits do not obscure the joy of what can be communicated through only one or two keyboards. (Where “The Rite of Spring” is concerned, one frequently hears more of the “internal” details in the piano version than when they are struggling to be heard over the rest of a large and loud orchestra. On the other hand, “Appalachian Spring” was originally composed for a chamber orchestra; and I feel as if Lerner never quite captured the spirit of Copland’s transparency in his arrangement.)

Nevertheless, I have to take issue with the advance material that I received along with this new recording. Here is how the contributing composers are described:
Two of them, Aaron Copland and John Adams, are among the most prominent of the last 100 years; the other two can be described to some degree as mavericks – Conlan [sic] Nancarrow (1912–1997) and Paul Schoenfield (b. 1947).
To this I find it hard to resist saying:
I remember John Adams when he was a maverick!
More specifically, my knowledge of Adams goes back to 1975 with Brian Eno’s release of the second album on his Obscure Records label. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only recording of Adams’ three-movement suite American Standard in its entirety. (The second movement, “Christian Zeal and Activity” managed to find its way onto a Nonesuch album and became part of The John Adams Earbox.) For that matter, when I first heard “Grand Pianola Music” performed (for the first time, I think) in New York at the 92nd Street Y, there was noticeable hostility in its reception. Perhaps the author of that sentence linking Adams to Copland is working on a book about Adams with the planned title From Maverick to Monument!