SMALL The Rothko Room: Journeys in Silence. Visions of Childhood. A Glimpse of Silence Haskell Small (pn) MSR 1497 (52:40)

Haskell Small has appeared in the pages of Fanfare, both as pianist (I have a performance of Pictures at an Exhibition by him in my archive, although that disc apparently has not been reviewed) and as composer. Since I’ve found little biographical information heretofore in these pages, a few words will be in order. Small received his training at the San Francisco Conservatory and Carnegie-Mellon University, studying piano with Leon Fleisher, William Masselos, Harry Franklin, and Jeanne Behrend. His composition studies were under the tutelage of Roland Leich and Vincent Persichetti, and he currently chairs the piano department of the Washington Conservatory of Music. His piano playing has taken him to major venues in London, Paris, and Japan, and in the autumn of 2013 he toured the U.S. with his “Journeys in Silence” program. Compositionally, he has received commissions from the Washington Ballet, Three Rivers Piano Competition, Georgetown Symphony, and others, and for several years in the early part of this century, he was composer-in-residence with the Mount Vernon Orchestra.

I suppose it is not even a “small” surprise that this composer should have written a good amount of music for his own instrument, and the disc in hand presents three fairly major works. The opening work, The Rothko Room: Journeys in Silence is, at a half hour, the most substantial work on the CD. It sounds nothing like Bartόk, Stravinsky, Poulenc, or Shostakovich, a point I make because of a review by former Fanfare reviewer John Story who, reviewing other piano works of this composer, didn’t “hear a note that is not underdigested Stravinsky and Bartók by way of Poulenc and Shostakovich.” Either Small has changed his style in these works, or Story has quite a different idea of what those composers sound like than I do.

Rothko is a one-movement work that seeks to outline the life of the noted Abstract Expressionist American painter Mark Rothko. I don’t know enough about Rothko’s life to give my opinion as to how successful this attempted description is, but Small has written an effective piece that sustains interest throughout its subdued, rather atonal, bell-like opening through several contrasting sections which contain momentary driving ostinatos, very tonal chorale-like excursions, polytonal block chords, and a return to the bell-like motive that the composer here terms “bells of doom.” Also portrayed are Rothko’s struggle with mental illness, his final burst of creativity (represented by the polonaise form), and the blood draining from him as his life slipped away (he committed suicide by slashing his arms with razor blades), the latter represented by the work fading into nothing. While there are certainly overtly tonal ideas to be heard in the work, the better part of it utilizes stark and severe tonality, much of which borders on (but doesn’t really cross into) atonality.

Haskell Small, the pianist, certainly knows what to do with Haskell Small, the composer. The challenge in performing a piece such as Rothko would seem to me to be the pacing of the piece. Much of it is quite episodic, and the space between the notes is as important as the notes themselves. In lesser hands, the piece would not cohere, but Small sees that it does so quite splendidly.

Visions of Childhood is, not surprisingly, inspired by Schumann’s Kinderszenen. None of the movements (including such titles as “Playing Rough,” “Feeling Lonely,” and “Roller Coaster”) of this 10-movement suite lasts more than three minutes, and most are a good bit shorter. The tonal language of this suite is similar to that of Rothko, but the movements are self-contained miniatures, each with its own “idea,” and do not exhibit the episodic nature of the preceding work. I enjoyed the occasional humorous touches that the composer has interwoven into this suite, including the quintessential children’s “taunt” motive (i.e., g-g-e-a-G-G) that shows up (albeit in gentle fashion) in Feeling Lonely. Small either has children, or well remembers what it was like to be a child in this work. The work would make a good companion to its Schumann inspiration, either in recital or on disc.

The CD closes with A Glimpse of Silence, an eight-minute opus that explores the concept of silence through such devices as a music box and a funeral march. The music box doesn’t sound like any that you’ve ever heard, but the effect is quite stunning, given its piquant and ethereal harmonies. Haskell Small’s music is well worth exploring, and he gives it what sound to my ears to be superlative performances, and the recording engineer has well captured the piano sound. Heartily recommended.
David DeBoor Canfield
Issue 38:3 (Jan/Feb 2015) of Fanfare Magazine