June 23, 2014

Review: "Speaking Through Soloists"

Haskell Small: The Rothko Room—Journeys in Silence (2010); Visions of Childhood (2011); A Glimpse of Silence (2013). Haskell Small, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Silence – the absence of sound – was important to Cage, although in that respect his preoccupations were nothing new: even Haydn thought it crucial to get the silences right when composing. Total silence is, of course, the opposite of sound and thus in a sense the opposite of music even while being a part of it. And the concept of silence can be interestingly interpreted with music, which is what Haskell Small (born 1948) tries to do in The Rothko Room and A Glimpse of Silence. Small has a particular fascination with silence as interpreted through music: he is a fine and wide-ranging pianist, and one work with which he is particularly associated is the more-than-hour-long Música Callada ("Quiet Music") by Catalan composer Frederic Mompou (1893-1987). With Small’s new MSR Classics CD, devoted entirely to world première recordings of his own music, it is easy to see the silence/sound dichotomy to which Small is attracted. Parts of The Rothko Room, which as a whole is a narrative of the life of Rothko (1903-1970), are tumultuous, while others make their points quietly or without sound altogether. The extended single-movement work falls into four distinct parts, each loosely related to one of the four Rothko paintings on display at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. A combination of impressionism in the Mussorgsky tradition with an attempt to paint a musical portrait of Rothko’s life, this is an ambitious work that will be most meaningful for those who know the specific Rothko paintings that inspired Small or, at the very least, are familiar with Rothko’s biography. A Glimpse of Silence, a shorter and more-straightforward piece, has an overall feeling of quiet and mysticism, with a predominant mood of serenity. Visions of Childhood is the most immediately appealing work on this disc. Like Schumann’s Kinderszenen, to which it traces its heritage, Small’s work is a series of brief scenes in which an adult looks back at a largely idealized picture of childhood. Small’s 10 scenes take only 15 minutes to perform, and several really do zip by – in under a minute. The once-upon-a-time approach is set up through the first piece, “A Long Time Ago,” and continues with lighthearted elements (“Frolicking,” “School’s Out!”) and some thoughtful ones (“Feeling Lonely,” “Lullaby”). The juxtapositions are generally quite well managed – the concluding “Lullaby,” for example, is preceded by “Roller Coaster” – and Visions of Childhood as a whole has a pleasantly nostalgic feel. Small’s music, especially insofar as it echoes some New Age-y elements of ethereality, will not be to all tastes, but this (+++) CD is a fair introduction to the composer/pianist’s thinking in recent years and in particular to his interest in having his works encompass large themes, including that of silence, within musical structures that verge on the miniature.