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Haskell Small Takes a Harrowing Journey Inward with His Latest Raptly Mystical Suite

Pianist Haskell Small‘s work is a prime example of the rewards of finding a muse and following that inspiration to the deepest reaches possible. He’s carved himself out a niche as a composer and champion of quiet, mystical, often viscerally haunting sounds. His 2014 album The Rothko Room: Journeys in Silence is a masterpiece of spare, lingering, often chilling inwardly-directed themes. He’s also one of the world’s foremost advocates for the otherworldly, bell-like music of Federico Mompou. Last night at St. Malachy’s Chapel in midtown, the pianist played an unselfconsciously transcendent solo program comprising both his own suite A Journey in Silence: Reflections on the Book of Hours, along with the New York premiere of John Tavener’s Pratirupa. Small is reprising the program tonight, May 10 at 8 PM at the Crypt at the Church of the Intercession. 550 W 155th St. If there’s ever been music written for the spacious sonics of a sacred space, this is it. The concert is sold out, but if you’re in the neighborhood, it would be worth checking to see if there are any no-shows.

Introducing the program, Small – father to another individualistic, intense composer, Sarah Small – explained that as he saw it, silence doesn’t equate to the absence of sound. Rather, it’s an invitation to look inward, a proces that can be pretty scary. The new suite, due out later this year, follows the moods of a monastic day’s routine. It’s replete with moments of lingering woundedness, quiet torment and even despair, yet offers a surprising counterbalance to all that trouble. Small began it with one of his signature, poignant, plaintive belltone themes: Satie, and Messiaen, and Debussy in gamelanesque mode echoed vividly in the distance.. The music peaked with incisive cascades of eerie tritones. then receded back into uneasy, resolutely unresolved territory.

Small very cleverly cached a couple of catchy, unexpectedly upbeat motives – a muted fanfare of sorts that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Cesar Franck epic, along with a brief cathedral chime – within its architecture, and then deftly inserted variations on each throughout the suite. This made room for an unexpected optimism throughout an often harrowing journey. Shostakovich does this, sometimes Rachmanininoff too. It’s a hard trick to pull off, but as Small finally reached an almost reluctantly heroic crescendo, the payoff was not explosive but mighty all the same. And then he descended toward stillness again, gracefully, until a few final, increasingly spacious, weightily suspenseful chords that ended with sn almost imperceptibly whisper.

The Tavener turned out to be considerably different. On one hand, there was a clear connection to the first part of the program, considering ite bell motives and stately, strolling, sometimes folksy hymnal passages. On the other, it was as if Small was reminding that he can also play fiercely when he wants. And was he ever required to here! But he gamely tackled its thorny thickets of chiseling, Louis Andriessen-ish righthand riffs over an exhaust cloud of lefthand rumble, each of those interludes kicking off with an almost droll upward glissando. That was when he wasn’t mining the composer’s pensive, Chopinesque prelude segments for as much rapture and wonder as he could conjure. But ultimately, it wasn’t up to the level of Small’s own magic. He encored with a Bach invention, a well-chosen benediction. After journeying so far inward with the rest of the program, the experience was akin hearing it for the first time, a richly gentle offering of comfort and joy.

Haskell Small Plays a Shattering, Haunting Program on the Upper West

More musicians should do what Haskell Small does: he plays what he likes, and brings it to life, sometimes quietly, sometimes somewhat more boisterously, putting his heart and soul into it. He gravitates toward music that’s on the quiet and rapturous side: his performance of Federico Mompou’s Musica Callada here last year was absolutely riveting. Friday night on the Upper West Side, Small revisited that theme, bookending an absolutely shattering performance of his own suite The Rothko Room with music of Satie and Alan Hovhaness.

Kicking off the evening with Satie’s first suite for piano, Four Ogives, set the stage perfectly. The title refers to church windows; with a delivery that managed to simultaneously embody stateliness, a warm gospel tone and an understated tension, Small left no doubt that by 1886, when Satie wrote this, he’d already found plenty to be vexated about. The evening’s piece de resistance was Small’s original work, an uninterrupted theme and variations based onboth  the life of Mark Rothko as well as an immersion in the Rothko paintings in the Phillips Collection’s Rothko Room in Washington, DC. Centered around a mournful bell-like theme that immediately brought to mind Mompou, Small worked dynamics that ranged from minute to occasionally jarring, through an unexpected boogie-woogie flavored passage and another, longer, bitingly animatedly interlude that strongly evoked Small’s early mentor Vincent Persichetti. The depiction of a late-career resurgence for Rothko brought back a hopeful, once again gospel-tinted ambience, but that quickly dissolved into an increasingly spacious, imploring and then utterly defeated series of motives. Small quoted Rothko beforehand as declaring that the only emotions worth depicting are doom and suffering, then made good on that statement.

The pianist picked up the pace after that with a series of ruggedly pastoral solo works by Hovhaness, illustrative of that composer’s fixation with mountains (he saw them as transitional from material to the spiritual, halfway between earth and sky). The Lullaby from the piano sonata Mt. Katahdin (a peak in Maine which barely qualifies as a mountain) took shape as a steady, morose dirge, contrasting with the tricky tempo and cruelly challenging staccato octaves of the Macedonian Mountain Dance, a Balkan boogie of sorts. Small made a different kind of challenge, the contrast between low-register, resonant malletwork inside the piano and the steady righthand melody, seem easy.

“Now for some rock n roll!“ Small grinned, winding up the program on a defiantly celebratory note with the Hymn to Mt. Chocorua., from Hovhaness’ 1982 sonata portraying the New Hampshire hill where the Indian warrior it’s named for reputedly lept to his death rather than surrendering to the bounty hunters who’d chased him to the summit. With its blend of traditional Armenian kef music and savage, Lisztian block chords, it was quite a change from the mystical, somber mood Small had brought to life so vividly earlier, an atmosphere he returned to with the encore, a tender, lushly spacious version of Arvo Part’s minimalist classic Fur Elina. Small’s spring tour featuring these works continues on April 11 at the Rothko Chapel in Houston.