Coping with crisisIt’s long been claimed that identical twins possess a connection beyond their matching DNA. This psychological link isn’t scientifically proven, but an online search of “twin telepathy” produces several million speculating Google results. I’m sure you’re wondering what this has to do with Duke Performances‘ fourth installment in “The Show Must Go Online.” Christina and Michelle Naughton are the latest musicians to be featured in this concert series, and it’s quite possible that their artistry is “twin telepathy” embodied. Either way, the Naughtons are an internationally-renowned piano duo; their twin identity is just one small factor of their notoriety. Born in New Jersey, the sisters have garnered an impressive performance history since their recital and orchestral debuts in 2009 – they’ve performed extensively across the USA, Europe, Latin America, and Asia. Since the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Naughtons have presented livestreamed/virtual performances with arts organizations across the globe. For their partnership with Duke Performances, the pianists performed works by Brahms, Debussy, Mendelssohn, and Poulenc, a combination of works for one piano/four hands and piano duo.

The “Prelude” movement of Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano Four Hands is a collage of moods and textures – hand-crossing and abrupt shifts abound, making it pure fun to play and listen to. The second movement, “Rustique,” is much more subdued in contrast, but the Naughtons played with an elegance and delicateness that was equally captivating. The sonata’s third movement showcased the sisters’ impeccable unison rapid-fire melodies, before revamping elements from the first movement.

Mendelssohn’s Andante and Variations in B-flat, Op. 83a begins deceptively simple – after the first variation, however, its complexity explodes, signifying Mendelssohn’s expansion of the original two-hand work to four hands. Thanks to a slew of different camera angles, the Naughton sisters’ extreme precision could be witnessed from all sides. Their intense energy for the foreboding, forte sixth variation was powerful, but the smaller details were just as, such as the pianists’ perfectly balanced diminuendos.

Playing on two pianos side-by-side, the Naughton’s ability to lure lyrical melodies from flurrying impressionistic texture was on full display for Debussy’s En blanc et noir, especially in the first movement (“Avec emportement”). Implying its politically-charged background, the second movement begins with imposing, stately chords, but this soon dissipates into gorgeous pulses and a singular melodic line. The two pianists adopted a more pensive expression for the “Scherzando” movement’s frenzied exchange between liquefied passages and eerie, resonant chords. En blanc et noir, perhaps more so than the previous pieces, allowed the Naughton sisters’ passion, almost trance-like at times, to shine individually, given the full breadth of the piano keys.

Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn (Op. 56b) is the perfect vehicle for Christina and Michelle Naughton’s athleticism and imaginative voices simultaneously. The choral opening exudes passion, a mood that is threaded throughout the work, including just enough restraint to stay true to Classical Haydn. The diversity of Brahms’ bold variations as performed by the sisters leaves one rapt, especially since the twin pianists often physically mirror one another with movement and facial expressions – the exuberant Finale had me smiling along with them. The Naughton sisters actually recorded this work in 2013, on their first album.

An exceedingly bright, cheerful, and seasonally apt encore took place in the form of Tchaikovsky’s Overture to The Nutcracker. It’s quite possible that many listeners have already heard this melody play on shuffle despite being less than a week into December; Christine and Michelle Naughton refreshed the piece with synchronized orchestral flair.