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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Haskell SMALL (b. 1948)
25 Preludes (1985)
Haskell Small, piano
Recorded Church of the Epiphany, Washington, D.C., March 2003 (Bach),
Rutgers Presbyterian Church, New York, May 1986 (Small)
4TAY 4028 [79:09

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" Variation 30.

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 the universe.

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.

Don Satz

See also review by Jonathan Woolf

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