My final concert at HCMF 2016 was in St Paul’s Hall in the company of pianist Mark Knoop and soprano Juliet Fraser, who presented the UK premières of two song cycles, Michael Finnissy‘s Andersen-Leiderkreis and Bernhard Lang‘s The Cold Trip, part 2. Despite the fact that some of the Finnissy was not in English, it was unfortunate that we were not given the texts for either piece, as it was often unclear precisely what was being sung (more to do with St Paul’s Hall than with Juliet Fraser), a real shame considering the fact that these were both substantial vocal works. Regardless of this, though, The Cold Trip, part 2 made its intentions really very clear within the first few minutes: using Schubert’s Winterreise as its inspiration (in this case, being ‘part 2’, focusing on the latter half of that cycle), Lang’s text comprises cut-up minute quotations, allusions and references to the Schubert in conjunction with a live piano part and piano samples executed by a laptop. This, Lang contends, creates a ‘meta-composition’ in which the sampled elements establish a palimpsest of the Schubert. It really and truly does not. The laptop samples—often barely recognisable as a piano anyway and certainly never recognisable as having the slightest connection to Schubert or anyone else) are used almost solely to create percussive, metric elements as a foundation for the live piano and soprano music above. The piano part is by turns also highly metric (mirroring the laptop) or featuring bursts of lyricism, the soprano stammering and continually restating the cut-up text like a cross between a corrupted audio file and a knackered vinyl record. Every now and again the piece approached something modestly interesting, usually as a product of Fraser’s tilt shifts between an emotional vacuum and overload (by far the most engaging aspect of the piece), but for the most part its relentless ploughing of essentially the same furrow was less indefatigable than downright bloody minded.
Finnissy’s cycle, drawing on the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, offered altogether more both to entice and contemplate. The accessibility of the songs came as something of a surprise. Generally speaking (and of course there are exceptions), Finnissy’s work in recent years seems to have made its references to other music more immediate, and the tone of his compositions, even the politically-charged ones (such as Third Political Agenda, performed by Philip Thomas the previous Monday) seem less to project anger than sadness. While I wouldn’t exactly call the combined effect of this ‘mellowing’, they do nonetheless constitute a perceptible shift, one overwhelmingly apparent in the overall tone of the Andersen-Leiderkreis. Indeed, it’s tempting to think of it as a kind of post-neo-romanticism, rooted as it is in allusive idiomatic references to music of the later 1880s, particularly that of Grieg, Schubert and Schumann. Despite the lack of textual certainty, the range and extent of its emotions were strikingly apparent, Finnissy sometimes fracturing melodies with fourth wall-breaking bursts of speech. The first four songs were overall very restrained, Fraser’s part kept relatively simple, only building significantly in drama in the last of these opening songs; furthermore, Knoop’s hands seemed to be chained to the centre of the keyboard, hardly ever venturing beyond into outlying regions. The middle three songs run continuously, in every way expanding what had gone before, and developing a more complex mode of expression (encompassing all registers of the piano), though restraint still felt endemic, with pensive hesitance passing to a lilting triple metre (from which the complexity emerged) to the eighth song’s plain prayerfulness, approaching about as close to the soundworld of (dare I say it) mainstream contemporary music as Finnissy ever has. Of the final four songs, the ninth, exploring the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes was perhaps not Finnissy’s finest hour; its oversimplistic superficiality suggested a piece written with an audience of children in mind (I know, I know, can’t it appeal to the child in all of us, etc., etc.?—yes, maybe, but it just didn’t). One felt something of a sense of going over the same musical ground in the tenth and eleventh songs, though the twelfth and final song was something else entirely, Fraser and Knoop united in an immense (but even here understated) burst of deep, romantic passion, making for a powerfully moving conclusion.