A Golden 'Silence' From Haskell Small

Pianist Haskell Small devoted his Phillips Collection recital to Federico Mompou's spare and mystical work.
Pianist Haskell Small devoted his Phillips Collection recital to Federico Mompou's spare and mystical work. (By Michael Dibari Jr. For The Washington Post)

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

It takes courage for a pianist to program a concert of works by a single composer. Double -- maybe triple -- that courage when the composer is Federico Mompou, a fascinating if obscure Spaniard whose austere, inward-looking works offer little in the way of crowd-pleasing virtuosity.

But, as pianist Haskell Small showed in an unusual recital Sunday at the Phillips Collection, Mompou's music is worth attention. Small devoted the afternoon to what may be the composer's masterpiece, a 28-part work from the 1960s called "Musica Callada" (roughly translated "Music of Silence") that lasts a little more than an hour. It's not music for the casual listener; there's little drama or much sense of forward motion, and the pieces rarely move beyond a moderate tempo. But what extraordinary music this was: Spare, meditative, even mystical, it used a minimal vocabulary to achieve a vast sense of scale. And each movement felt almost shockingly authentic, as if Mompou had stripped away everything superfluous in himself and was writing directly from the core.

Much of the credit goes to Small, who may be better known to Phillips audiences for fine performances of his own works. Not every pianist has the temperament or the insight to play Mompou well, but Small had clearly internalized the work and brought it off with exceptional gravity and focus. Each movement had a life and character of its own -- from Satie-like translucence to almost frightening desolation -- while connecting to the others with natural grace. High marks to Small on courage alone, even higher for a riveting performance.

-- Stephen Brookes


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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