Haskell Small Delivers a Shattering Performance of Mompou’s Musica Callada
Federico Mompou’s Musica Callada, true to its name, is very quiet, but it’s murderously difficult to play. Not because it requires great technique, but because it calls for an extraordinary command of minutiae – the subtlest gesture on the part of a pianist brave enough to tackle it can make a mountain of difference. Friday night in the Lincoln Center neighborhood, Haskell Small went deep into the suite with a nuanced command and relentlessly intense commitment and turned in a performance that was often nothing short of harrowing.
Mompou wrote the series of twenty-eight more-or-less miniatures in four “books,” beginning in 1959 and concluding fifteen years later, when the composer was eighty-one years of age. Mompou’s obvious reference points are Satie’s Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes – but with more dynamic variations, and less of a lingering, macabre sensibility – and Messiaen at his most otherworldly and haunting. Small explained beforehand that Mompou described the suite as “airless,” but it’s less a study in stillness than in the anguish of wanting to break a spell. There’s also a prayerful aspect to this music, but in Small’s hands it was an imploring, get-me-out-of-here kind of anguish, similar to the quietest works of Jehain Alain.
Mompou’s father ran a bell foundry, which might be the original inspiration for the eerie, sustained close harmonies that define the work. Small approached them with a minutely varied rubato which mightily enhanced the suspense and element of the unexpected that pervades these pieces. He cautioned the audience to pay close attention to the occasional tortured explosions of sound, making them count far more loudly than he actually played them. As the bit of an opening overture quickly morphed into lento creepiness, Small built tension with a knife’s-edge intensity that never wavered. The alternately atmospheric and sudden, twisted motives of the middle series of pieces in the second book was a highlight, as was Small’s favorite of the entire suite, the next-to-last segment which in many ways sums up the entire work with its plaintive, acidic, bell-toned angst. It concluded at last with a hymn of sorts, but even that never quite let go of the pervasive longing. The crowd, silent throughout the performance, waited until it was certain there would be no more and then slowly began their standing ovation. Small is also a composer, and will play a follow-up to this concert featuring his own similarly-tinged works at Christ & St. Stephen’s Church on 69th St. between Central Park West and Columbus Ave. at 8 PM next March 28.
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