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Lisztian sparkle

American piano virtuoso
Haskell Small


Piano virtuoso Haskell Small is the last person to sound his own trumpet. Not many current American keyboard players of his generation have been credited by the UK-based Musical Times with a 'dazzlingly prodigious technique', by the German national press with 'spellbinding', 'poetry' and 'playing with which one can hardly find any fault', or by the Washington Post with words like 'flair', 'bravura', 'technical prowess' and 'Lisztian sparkle'. As both composer and pianist he has been hailed alike at the Carnegie Hall, the Alice Tully Hall, Columbia University, the Kennedy Center and the National Gallery of Art (in his native Washington). Now Small has been similarly acclaimed on a series of tours of Europe and the Far East.

Haskell Small - pianist and composer. Photo: Sarah Small

Fanfare called him 'refreshing', which is doubly true. Small, now into his fifties but sparkling with wit, keen intelligence and good humour, is delightfully unassuming about his achievements, both as pianist and composer. Quizzed about success, he begins with 'I won a little prize in a little Pittsburgh competition' (-- for someone with the surname 'Small' he uses the word 'little' quite often).

Haskell Small's keyboard repertoire is both imaginative and wide-ranging : he spans not just Bach, the Mozart and Beethoven concertos, Chopin, and two composers he has (I suggest) a special affinity with -- Alkan and Liszt -- but also the mid 20th century : Rachmaninov and Shostakovich Preludes (he plays both Shostakovich Piano Concertos, as well as Prokofiev's First), Bartók, Albeniz, Ives, the Samuel Barber Sonata, and Gershwin (Small has made his own characterful piano arrangements of both An American in Paris and the F major Concerto, and recorded a memorable disc entitled Gershwin in Black and White ; Gershwin remains a firm favourite since his boyhood days) -- as well as modern contemporaries like Dominick Argento and Benjamin Lees, and also his own music.

His latest London appearance, a sprightly Purcell Room recital in late April 2002 (repeated in early May in Paris, at both the Ecole Nationale de la Musique, Sucy en Brie and the Conservatoire Municipale de la Ville de Paris (Gabriel Fauré Conservatoire), Quartier Latin, St Germaine des Prés, Paris), took in Mompou (the 'Catalan Satie'), Poulenc, Takemitsu, plus a gloriously played, pedal-free, birdsongy Scarlatti encore (whose brevity and economy somehow echo the spirit of Small's own compositions), and -- best of the lot -- his own gripping half-hour Symphony for Solo Piano.

Haskell Small grew up in Washington DC, and comes from a native Washington family, which, he points out, is quite unusual : 'Washington is an itinerant city, so a family of four generations of Washingtonians is pretty rare!'

Did he always know he wanted to be a Classical musician? 'Well I guess you could say I had a slightly weird background for a classical musician. I first came to music through jazz and rock. Before that I'd started playing the piano early, aged around seven or eight; but my teachers soon gave up on me -- and I on them! For a time I was basically self-taught; I branched out into the things that I wanted to do.'

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Copyright © 26 May 2002 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK





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