Pianist Haskell Small used a fellow keyboard virtuoso, Domenico Scarlatti, for his warm-up music Saturday afternoon in the Terrace Theater, and it worked beautifully. By the time he had run through six of Scarlatti's little sonatas, he was ready for the somewhat more challenging task of playing three compositions by Haskell Small, including the world premiere of his Third Piano Sonata.
Small the composer does not try to make things easy for Small the pianist; his music is very idiomatic for the keyboard and easily enjoyable in style, but it requires considerable power, agility and linear clarity, as well as the ability to make complex, unorthodox structures work when they are being heard for the first time. In the Sonata (which ends, with striking effectiveness, in a slow movement), his three brief, evocative Impressions and his playfully academic Introduction and Fugue, Small brought to his own music a very high measure of skill and devotion. The music is rather conservative in style, with occasional, strong traces of jazz rhythms and harmonies and now and then a cadence reminiscent of Gershwin. It made a strong first impression, not as music of towering greatness but as music that one would like to hear again and know better.
Greatness is a quality of the final selection on the program, the Sonata in B minor by fellow pianist Franz Liszt, but somehow, on this occasion, it did not sound quite as exciting as the music of Haskell Small. The pianist brought to this work the same qualities of strength, precision and clarity that were so well displayed in his own music, but something was missing--a kind of electricity that the B-minor sonata can generate when a virtuoso becomes totally involved, throws off caution and restraint and plunges headlong into the music. For all its numerous virtues, Small's performance did not convey the impression that he was more interested in Liszt than in Small. Perhaps he can be forgiven for that.