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Small: Lullaby Of War, Renoir's Feast / Rayner, Nasseri

Small / Nasseri / Rayner
Release Date: 05/31/2011 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8559649   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Haskell Behrend Small
Performer:  Martin RaynerSoheil Nasseri
Number of Discs: 1 
Length: 1 Hours 4 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SMALL Lullaby of War 1. Renoir’s Feast. 3 Etudes in Sound Soheil Nasseri (pn); 1 Martin Rayner (nar) NAXOS 8.559649 (64:19)

Former Fanfare contributor the late John Story reviewed two CDs of Haskell Small’s music back in 25:3, finding that there was not “a note that is not underdigested Stravinsky and Bartók by way of Poulenc Read more and Shostakovich.” He also noted the influence of Messiaen in the same review, and it is the latter composer whose style jumped out to my ears in the first notes I heard on this CD, although it quickly was superseded by a more individual and personal style full of dancing rhythms and astringent sonorities. But I’m getting ahead of myself …

Haskell Small (b.1948), a native of Washington, D.C., studied composition and piano at the San Francisco Conservatory and then Carnegie-Mellon University, working with Roland Leich and Vincent Persichetti in composition, and with William Masselos and Leon Fleisher in piano. His music has been performed on three continents, and recorded by a number of record companies, including Albany, Klavier, and now Naxos. He has written much music for dance, which has won him awards and competitions. Indeed, I would cite the dance-like character of much of his music as one of its distinguishing characteristics.

Commissioned by and written for pianist Soheil Nasseri, the Lullaby of War for narrator and piano is, in the words of the composer, “both an expression of outrage at our perpetual rationalizations for making war and an offering of compassion for its victims.” The six poems are drawn in pairs from the eras of the Civil War and World War I, and from the anthology Poets Against the War. Each of these poems is connected by a “prayer theme” (rather Messiaen-like interludes) to limn the ghastly rainbow of war from Stephen Crane’s War Is Kind to Paul Tatarunis’s Guernica. While I generally do not work up much enthusiasm over works that combine narration with music, this opus seems to work well in achieving its goal. Contrary to Story, I hear not the slightest resemblance to Poulenc, Bartók, Stravinsky, or Shostakovich in this music; at most, there may be some mild resemblance to certain works of Roger Sessions, Stefan Wolpe, or the Australian Richard Meale, especially the latter’s Coruscations. Actor Martin Rayner brings across the poems with conviction and passion (the narration is never accompanied by the music, but is interspersed among the musical sections). No texts are provided, but are scarcely necessary given Rayner’s impeccable diction.

Renoir’s Feast follows the tradition of Mussorgsky and Hartmann. Like Pictures, this work is cast in 16 short movements, with one gently flowing movement, “The River,” found six times, seemingly assuming the place of the promenades in Pictures. However, in this solo piano work, only one painting—Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party— is depicted. In it the composer weaves together a slightly imagined tableau vivant of friends of the artist. These include Alphonse Fournaise, Charles Ephrussi, Jules Laforge, and others. Since Small cannot have known Renoir’s friends, I would not additionally put this work forward as a 21st-century equivalent of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Stylistically, the piece is gently dissonant with many chords of unusual construction. Like Pictures, there is plenty of variation in mood and texture.

The disc closes with Three Etudes in Sound, a non-programmatic essay focused on color and sound control. Its brief movements are titled “Sound Layers,” “Sound Swirls and Spikes,” and “Sound Sustained,” and sound pretty much just as you’d expect from those titles. All the works are adroitly performed by pianist Soheil Nasseri, who negotiates the considerable technical demands of the music with seeming ease. The sound is forward and well recorded. I only wish that the art works reproduced in the booklet had been done in color. Notwithstanding that oversight, and a glitch in the pressing that momentarily hung up the CD in both of my players in track 23, I recommend this disc heartily. Haskell Small is his own man, and certainly speaks with his own polished and eloquent voice in the works heard on this CD.

FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
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Works on This Recording

Lullaby of War by Haskell Behrend Small
Performer:  Martin Rayner (Narrator), Soheil Nasseri (Piano)
Period: 21st Century 
Written: 2007 
Renoir's Feast by Haskell Behrend Small
Performer:  Soheil Nasseri (Piano)
Period: 21st Century 
Written: 2005 
Etudes (3) in Sound by Haskell Behrend Small
Performer:  Soheil Nasseri (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1993 

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