Haskell Small at the Purcell Room – 29th April

Suite Française
Musica callada (excerpt)
Rain Tree Sketch
Three Argentine Dances
Symphony for Solo Piano

Haskell Small (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 29 April, 2002
Venue: Purcell Room, London

Haskell Small’s attractively unhackneyed programme began with an extra item taken from one of four books of Mompou’s “music of silence”. In introducing this entrée as “saying grace”, Haskell Small said he liked the idea of sound and silence – so do I, it’s a concept some audience members would do well to consider – yet the chosen number had many more notes than expanse, and lacked intimacy.

The American pianist/composer (born 1948) has a charming platform manner and introduced the items modestly. Of the eighteen short movements that filled the first-half, Small was best attuned to the rhythmic panache and ’lazy’ expression of Ginastera; certainly he worked up a well controlled head of steam for the “cowboy rock-and-roll” of the final dance.

Earlier, although playing with feeling, the Poulenc lacked tonal variety and truly quiet dynamics. This made heavy weather of this attractive suite that a tad more wit (however dry) would have alleviated; in fairness, knowing the composer’s orchestration doesn’t help. Small’s affection for Mompou not doubted, these miniatures need a more rarefied soundworld to leave an individual impression. The first of Takemitsu’s two Rain Tree sketches, played with requisite poise, sounded over-pedalled; a glance at the score might prove me wrong. For an encore, “to clean the palate”, Small offered a Scarlatti sonata (I’ve a 1 in 555 chance of knowing which one!) that was less crisp and ornamental than ideal (even on a piano) but attractively vital nonetheless.

Playing his own music, Haskell Small was very comfortable, the experienced performer rather than nervous composer. Was this the UK or European premiere of Small’s Symphony? More fantasy-sonata perhaps, it proved well worth getting to know. Its six movements play for just over half-an-hour. Starting slowly with Lisztian probing, the muse of Busoni hovers until some Prokofiev-like ostinatos drive the first movement along. The short ’Allegro commodo’ that follows is especially fine, a pithy creation beginning with a ’free’ melody that suggests Schoenberg. The following ’Adagio sostenuto’ alternates a rather naïve (as in George Lloyd) aggressive march with more consolatory material – perhaps a re-interpretation of Beethoven’s depiction of Orpheus taming the Furies in his Fourth Piano Concerto (or so Liszt reckoned). Of the remaining three sections – played attacca – the ’sarcastico’ was lost on me, as was its brevity. After chordal progressions there’s a return to earlier material; a bell-like sense of attainment sounds the ’homecoming’ (not dissimilar to that of Liszt’s B minor sonata; it too, as analysed by Alfred Brendel, has six movements).

For all the mention of other composers – to which add Copland, not least his Fantasy – I found Small’s Symphony a compelling work. Too reliant on ostinatos serving as development, Small’s seriousness of purpose holds sway. There is, especially in what might be best thought a tri-partite finale, the potential to make more of the material and delay the reprise of earlier ideas; something more momentous might then be the result both as a whole and in culmination. I am reminded of Michael Tippett’s birth-to-death Fourth Symphony that doesn’t quite work in its flashbacks. Yet, with a recognisable Americanising of European models (Small’s studies with William Masselos will no doubt have thrown up many such examples), and certainly in absolute terms, Small has created a meaningful and absorbing piece.

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