Michael Finnissy‘s chamber work Judith Weir was composed as a 50th birthday present for her in 2004. Back in 1985, Weir had written a short piano piece as a gift for Finnissy titled Michael’s Strathspey, an all-too-momentary dazzlement littered with ‘scotch snaps’, the familiar rhythmic device associated with that traditional Scottish dance tune. For his return gift, Finnissy too calls on the strathspey, exploring it in a way that offers something of a variation on the approach taken in in Viitasaari and A-lang Felton Lonnen.
Composed for violin, cello, piano and clarinet (although the latter part was originally performed by Finnissy himself on a melodica), the strathspey itself is performed with cheerful gusto by the violin, which acts as a soloist throughout. It becomes something of a cyclic presence, seemingly caught in a loop in aeternam, yet at the same time sounds continuously reinvented, full of effervescence and vitality, music laden with smiles and hiccups. The cello serves as a sidekick (not unlike a kind of Sancho Panza to the violin’s Don Quixote), following it constantly with a pizzicato bassline, rhythmically staid but dependable, ever playing in sympathy. The piano feels tangentially connected, offering occasional bursts of floridity, clearly part of the ensemble in spirit but speaking as if with an entirely foreign dialect. And then there’s the clarinet, entirely disconnected, sounding as though it was its first day uttering sounds, resulting in an endless series of halting solitary pitches that only occasionally sound correct and then by accident. The poor instrument never finds either the confidence or the nous to get a grip on what’s going on around it, bringing an amusing layer of absurdity to what is already a charmingly oblique (or should that be obliquely charming?) birthday offering.
This performance was given at the 2015 Proms Composer Portrait concert last August, by Sarah Farmer (violin), Thomas McMahon (cello), Jack McNeill (clarinet) and Sofia Sarmento (piano).