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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations BWV988
Haskell SMALL (b.1948)

Twenty-Five Preludes (1985)
Haskell Small (piano)
Recorded at Rutgers Presbyterian Church, New York, May 1986 (Small) and at the Church of the Epiphany, Washington D.C, March 2003 (Bach)
4 TAY4028 [79.09]


Composer-pianist Haskell Small studied at the San Francisco Conservatory and at Carnegie-Mellon University. He also took piano studies with, inter alia, Leon Fleisher and composition with Vincent Persichetti. Born in 1948, he frequently performs his own music and also that of Bach. He was a semi-finalist in the Bach International Piano Competition. As he explains in his note it’s not conceit that leads him to bracket his performance of the Goldberg Variations with his own 25 Preludes, but rather that he patterned the Preludes after the Goldbergs; using block chords that journey through the major and minor keys. Additionally they are cyclical and fit into patterns. This of course sounds cerebral and unyielding; a schematic approach that might assign each "set" an impenetrable sense of mechanics or mathematics.

Not true, however, in practice. As with the Goldberg Variations, Small has ensured that the disc is tracked to reflect the structural blocks. His style is certainly eclectic. I hear the influence of impressionism in the first prelude; there is pawky humour in the second, a 1930s vamp (with witty sign-off figure) permeates No.4. He inflects the cantabile of No.5 with nightclub piano bar insouciance – demotic and noble in close proximity – but summons up Mussorgskian chordal granite when required. He is hypnotic in No.8 and isn’t that the ghostly skeleton of John Brown’s Body in No.12? I enjoyed his fractious, nasty and argumentative fugue and the big contrasts he sets up between attacca and lyrical moments. Interestingly he apparently only noticed the Reveille theme later; it’s there all right, and seems to make a transformed reappearance at the end, though he doesn’t mention this. He covers bluesy show tunes, touches of Shostakovich, a Funeral March, song-like moments and, in the end, a searching, questing intimacy. The work is dedicated to the composer’s father who died during the year the Preludes were written.

No room, obviously, for many repeats in the Goldberg Variations. It’s a warm performance, with a tripping, semi-staccato harpsichord touch in the Aria and some playful voicings. Five is rather soft-grained and not all the lines are brought out with immediacy elsewhere. I liked however the pomposo start to 16 and the affectionate realisation of the slower variations.

The recorded sound is good, the composer-performer acquitting himself with panache in his own work and paying apposite homage in the Bach. An interesting compositional voice – steeped in impressionism, show tunes and the gaudy traffic of after hours – a good brew.

Jonathan Woolf



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