Michael Finnissy‘s musical output is dominated by his works for piano, which to date number around 200, most for solo piano plus others for piano duet and two pianos. For many people, Finnissy’s most well-known work continues to be his first great piano cycle English Country Tunes, a 40-minute, eight-movement journey through music inhabiting the extremes of rage and sublimity. (Coincidentally, today is the 30th anniversary of the première of the final version of that piece, given by Finnissy himself at the BMIC in London). Although indicative of all his music, Finnissy’s works for piano, no doubt due in part to it being the composer’s own instrument, seem to tap to a greater extent into the most intimate and heartfelt aspects of his outlook, somehow finding an expressive modus operandi that’s simultaneously elemental yet agonisingly personal. In Finnissy’s hands, the piano finds both pain and ecstasy.
In his 1974 work for two pianos Wild Flowers, the key word seems to be ‘find’, conveying as it does very much a sense of searching, almost of feeling one’s way forward. That’s not to suggest anything particularly tentative about the music—indeed, its ambitions could hardly be more far-reaching and ambitious, drawing its title from William Blake’s famous opening lines from his poem Auguries of Innocence:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
Finnissy wrote the piece while working at the London School for Contemporary Dance, for a group called The Cedars of Lebanon. The first performance in this context involved the composer multi-tracking the two parts, whereas its première as a concert work, on 26 October 1975 at the ISCM Festival in Paris, was treated to a fittingly exuberant performance by none other than the Labeque sisters. The transition away from its dance origin doesn’t really rob Wild Flowers of anything essential, although it perhaps results in the music attaining an even greater intensity. Originally—and somewhat mind-bogglingly—conceived for a solo piano, extremes feature very strongly throughout, chiefly between the upper- and lowermost registers of the instruments, as well as emotional poles of lyricism and turbulence. That sense of searching i mentioned before is clear from the outset, in spacious, pensive music that feels like it’s taking soundings in order to judge how and where best to proceed. The intrusion of massive chord clusters foreshadow a progression into rapid figurations and an increased sense of pace, particularly when, around 3½ minutes in, a bassline emerges. The music erupts in a huge cloud of fast, intricate agglomerations (continuing the sharp distinction between high/low registers), leading to a series of explosions that gradually cause things to subside and descend, in the process forcing things apart, to the point where notes only just feel sufficiently connected to each other, at the cusp of being either a solid or a gas. It’s a sonically similar place to the opening, although emotionally feels very different due to coming in the wake of such ferocity; and, sure enough, before long not only do the pianos flare up again, but beyond this they unleash a monolithically forceful display—borderline out of control—initially running amok with a kind of chaotic blindness until decorative trills bring some focus, whereupon it abruptly burns itself out. The work’s conclusion embraces the idea of extremes more than anywhere else: isolated fragments of gentle activity sit between increasing periods of complete silence, answered by an utterly gargantuan crescendo built out of heavyweight tremolandi, just as exhausting to hear as it must surely be to perform.
This—frankly rather breathtaking—performance was given by Mark Knoop and Roderick Chadwick on 24 September 2006 at the Warehouse in London, as part of the Michael Finnissy 60th Birthday Weekend.