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<<  -- 4 --  Roderic Dunnett    LISZTIAN SPARKLE

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What instrument does he favour? 'Well I have a Steinway B, just under seven foot, it's a wonderful piece of equipment, though since its better days I guess mine has acquired all sorts of flaws. On the surface, I should probably change it, because it now has a rough, weird singing register : with the higher keys I have to really work to get the sound right, to prevent it sounding kind of thin. But its tenor and bass registers are so wonderful I could never part with it, even though I toy with the idea.

I just was involved with choosing a new piano for the Conservatoire; we've purchased a 9 ft Bluthner, which is a magnificent instrument, it's four strings per note in the higher register and you can lay down one of the high notes and it'll last all day, it's amazing the sustaining power in itself. I played a recital on it just recently, with some of the repertoire I used in my Purcell Room recital, and it just sang and played itself.'

Does his Steinway, with its curious timbres, perhaps affect the way he composes? 'I'm sure it does. I can't put my finger on a specific thing, although part of my compositional process is to improvise, play around at the piano et some ideas; then I'll just sit in a chair and, you know, cerebrate about things, then go back to the piano, work out some details and so forth. But the sound I'm getting back from that instrument certainly forms part of what I'm doing, yes.'

The high point of his Purcell Room recital -- and doubtless many others too -- was the Symphony for Solo Piano, one of Small's most substantial pieces to date. On two or three hearings, I would hazard that it's a masterpiece. You can sense the history behind it -- Small the Liszt and Chopin devotee, Small with his intricate knowledge of late Beethoven. Its proportions are magnificently thought through, and he himself plays it superbly, in such a way as to galvanise an entire audience. It deserves, as Tim Page wrote in the Washington Post, a regular place in the mainstream repertoire.

The Symphony for Solo Piano has six movements. Why? 'Well -- this is getting kind of technical, but -- I didn't simply plan it like that, the structural idea evolved. The theme at the outset is just a single line, single notes [B C D C#, B C D Eb D C#, C D C#F, E Eb D C#] , and that develops as a Passacaglia and just little by little builds to a much thicker texture. And then finally it reaches an Allegro Sonata movement type of feel about three minutes into the piece.'

Haskell Small. Photo: Sarah Small

'Anyway the notes of the opening suggested to me specific keys for the various movements as well as the relative importance of the movements. For example, the rhythmic structure begins dah da dah da (long short long, short) so I thought of a fairly hefty first movement, a little interlude for the second movement, and then the third movement's the big one -- it alternates a violent, martial theme and a pleading, ascetic theme; the fourth (Adagio molto scherzando) is a kind of sarcastic comment; then you get to the peak of the phrase of the Passacaglia, where you skip over and get up to that high F : that F is the dominant (even though not actually in a relation of five to one, it's actually the tritone on B -- I like tritones) and that essentially suggested the fifth movement, which to me is the most interesting as a structural thing, it's a series of chords, good old triads, with kind of birdlike -- I won't call them birdcalls, but something felt to me that I was floating on the edge of something, I didn't even know what it was.

'I still don't know what it was, but I think it comes from a point in another piece of mine -- my Twenty Five Preludes -- that involved a Funeral March, which reflected what happened to me when my father died, and I had this experience when he died, we rushed over in the middle of the night, the way these things always happen; and at about 5am I went home. And there was a typical (London-like!) atmosphere, everything was grey, misty, and I heard nothing but birds : it was both a shivering, frightening feeling and at the same time very ecstatic -- it was like sensing a soul rising, something like that -- and I made an attempt in my E minor Prelude, which is a Funeral March, to add that as a kind of Trio. And that idea also comes back in the last prelude, the 25th.

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Copyright © 26 May 2002 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK

 

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