I am very glad to have received
this disc for review. Haskell Small is an outstanding pianist
and impressive composer as well. Although his current following
is of a cult nature along the East Coast of the United States, Small deserves
much wider recognition for both his performance artistry and compositional
skills. His piano repertoire ranges from Mozart/Haydn to modern
piano works, and he plays this wide variety of music exceptionally
well. Further, his own set of Preludes from 1985 is an unusual and successful
coupling for the disc being reviewed.
This does bring up the question
of how a one-CD recording of the Goldberg Variations could accommodate
any coupling at all - simply omit the repeats. I do find this
problematic and would like to explain my reasoning. The Aria and
the 30 Variations are in AABB form. If nothing else, the repeats
can bring a cumulative effect to the music. Further, it is not
uncommon for keyboard artists to vary the repeats as to tempo,
dynamics, ornamentation, articulation, etc. The skipping of repeats
represents a loss to the composition and its symmetry, although
I do find that a fantastic performance goes a long way toward
offsetting the loss.
Is Small's performance fantastic?
In most respects, yes. His sonorities
are gorgeous at all times, and I marvel at the graceful flow of
his rhythms and his highly civilized playing. Also, the detail
he invests in the inner voices is exquisite with a superb dialogue
among the musical lines that is perhaps best apparent in Variation
17. Best of all, I have not heard a more beautiful performance
on record. This is lyricism of the highest order, and I am entirely
smitten with the gorgeous performance of the "Quodlibet"
However, the intensity of emotion
displayed by Small isn't quite at peak levels. After listening
to the great exuberance of Andras Schiff
on ECM, Small can sound slightly restrained. Further, he does
not tend to dig very deeply into the underside of the human condition.
As an example, Small's interpretation of the "Black Pearl"
Variation 25 is a lovely one but far removed from the tension
and bleakness delivered by Rosalyn Tureck
on BBC Legends.
This brings me to Small's composition
of 25 Preludes. Before listening, I was a little irked that Small
makes space for his own music at the expense of Bach's repeats.
Also, I had an unfavorable feeling about a performer/composer coupling his
work with Bach's glorious music. After listening, those considerations
are entirely gone. This is very fine music possessing ample diversity
and very pleasurable melodies and rhythms. Of course, we don't
get the range of diversity found in the Goldberg Variations. Small's
Preludes tend to be of two general types: other-worldly with an
element of confusion where notes trail off into space, and jazz-infused
preludes that are expertly crafted. Actually, many of the preludes
combine the other-worldly and jazz influences. There are some
passages of dissonance, but the work can easily be appreciated
by those who favor tonal music.
In his booklet notes, Small
makes his case for the inclusion of his work along-side Bach's.
Without delving into the small print, the architecture of the
25 Preludes is modeled after the Goldberg Variations. However, these similarities
need not be noticed in order to greatly appreciate Small's miniatures.
They are stimulating and most enjoyable with some elements of
boogie-woogie and ragtime. I have listened to these pieces at
least a dozen times, and they remain as fresh as on the first
hearing. Especially rewarding are the jazz-like fugue of Prelude
14 and slow and mystical Prelude 25 where notes evaporate into
In conclusion, the lack of
repeats in the Goldberg Variations does little to dampen my enthusiasm
for the new Haskell Small recording. He is a pianist of the first
rank, and his 25 Preludes continue to sound fresh and interesting
after at least a dozen hearings. The soundstage is exceptional
for both works, although there is a slight hiss that comes with
the 25 Preludes. I strongly recommend the disc and intend to delve
further into Small's discography as performer and composer.
by Jonathan Woolf