Michael Finnissy at 70: A Metier Retrospective – Part 2. Chamber music

As with his vocal works, Michael Finnissy‘s chamber music is represented on four Metier discs, comprising around twenty pieces composed across three decades, from 1977 to 2007. This is only a miniscule proportion of Finnissy’s vast quantity of chamber music, but it nonetheless provides a valuable demonstration of various aspects of his compositional language. Above all, his omnipresent engagement with existing musical materials, which while often manifested in Finnissy’s music to varying degrees of convolution and obfuscation, could hardly be more overwhelmingly obvious in Metier’s 2013 CD featuring two works for piano quintet.

The first is Finnissy’s own completion of ‘EG 118’, a fragment by Edvard Grieg of what was intended to be a piano quintet, a mere 250 bars sketched in the early 1890s. Stylistically speaking, of course, this isn’t going to appeal to all fans of contemporary music, but it is a remarkably large-scale testament not merely to an empathetic response to Grieg’s material but to a wholesale assimilation by Finnissy of Grieg’s entire soundworld and musical thinking. Caveat: personally speaking, despite growing up listening to a fair amount of Grieg’s music, i’m no expert and therefore can’t say from a scholarly perspective to what extent Finnissy has remained entirely faithful to Grieg’s intentions. But regardless of that, one can hear the pleasure—the sheer fun, in fact—that Finnissy has had in taking Grieg’s ideas and putting them through an intensive 27-minute, single-movement workout (Finnissy calls it a ‘kammersymphonie’) that, superficially at least, never strays far enough away from the Norwegian’s path to sound as though anything untoward is taking place. Put simply, it convinces. Overall, the structural integrity of the piece does feel somewhat strained in its latter stages, but it’s an outstanding achievement all the same. This piece is paired on the disc with Grieg-Quintettsatz, a work where Finnissy lets himself off the leash imposed by the completion to write something more free based on the same fragment. It’s a distinctly uncanny experience, at times entirely ensconced within the world of late romanticism, yet from the halfway point Finnissy wildly swings the piece away from this, plunging deeper and deeper into more contemporary territory. What follows is about as easy to describe as it must have been difficult to achieve, a spontaneous, slip-sliding dialogue between these very different modes of musical expression, one that gradually finds and forges unexpected links between them (a lot changes in 100 years, but not everything), an aural reconciliation that causes one’s initial, palpable, disorientation to be entirely dispelled. The performances, given by the Kreutzer Quartet and pianist Roderick Chadwick, are splendid in the way they reinforce the contrasts and connections both between these old and new soundworlds as well as the two works on the disc, which as a whole comes across as a stimulating mixture of traditional familiarity and disarming oddity.

Disorientation is a recurring trait in Michael Finnissy’s output generally, not only due to collisions of style and aesthetic but in the way different parts or materials relate to one another. This can lend his music a layer of initial impenetrability, a quality particularly audible in the works on Metier’s most recent Finnissy disc, Mississippi Hornpipes, exploring various works for violin and piano, performed by Darragh Morgan and Mary Dullea. Not in all of them, though: based on folk fiddle tunes, the title work is a highly engaging, rapid progression through a huge number of episodes, so rapid that the joins are often difficult to discern. The connectivity between the instruments to an extent moves in and out of phase but behaviourally they’re clearly united. However, in Seterjentens Fridag, another folk-based work, the relationship between the three players (violin, piano and organ, the latter performed by Finnissy himself) has the semblance of a mobile, drifting parts that align themselves in accidental and coincidental ways. This highlights another facet of disorientation in Finnissy’s work, due to the way he manages the distribution of his musical materials. A great deal of his music involves unsynchronised performance, with varying amounts of control being exerted in terms of a composition’s long-term coordination and structure. The effects of this are pretty bewildering in Seterjentens Fridag, whereas in Amphithéâtre des Sciences Mortes the effect is relatively subtle, Dullea’s prepared piano, aided here by Finnissy playing an additional keyboard, forming a strange little ‘gamelan’ of sorts, positioning quasi-random bursts of activity around the violin’s foreground phrases more as colouration than counterpoint. Despite being evidently strung together so loosely, the piece manages to maintain a coherent and consistent whole. The Violin Sonata that concludes the disc is arguably the most coherent piece of all. Cast as a diptych, its distinctly neo-romantic first movement is rapid and robust but for all its thorough-going exploration of sonata principles is somewhat vague. The second movement could hardly be more different, quick-fire staccatos displaying an increasing sense that what we’re hearing is in fact cut-up/fragmented lyrical material (perhaps from the preceding movement) which the violin in particular is trying to piece back together and/or recapture its spirit. On the one hand, the longest work on the disc, Molly House, a 2004 work for “unspecified ensemble (with soloists, keyboards and electric household-gadgets)”—the latter here manifested as a detuned harpsichord and a collection of household appliances—could easily be described as an essay in the most dramatic disorientation. A frankly discombobulating composition where the violin’s imploring central lyricism is surrounded, afflicted, intruded, coloured and embellished by a litany of alarming noises that push the ‘counter’ of counterpoint to its extreme, Finnissy makes its fundamental strangeness a positive virtue. The music’s wonderfully bizarre expressive cut and thrust is given a weird veneer through its continual cut-and-paste demeanour, as though pieced together from multiple fragments of salon music, resulting in a downright weird piece that seems to be reinterpreting its own compositional DNA at every moment. Easily one of the composer’s most engagingly entertaining pieces, Morgan, Dullea and Finnissy are all clearly having a whale of a time in this delirious performance which is easily the highlight of the disc.

The Kreutzer Quartet return on Metier’s disc (originally released in 1998, reissued in 2013) featuring seven of Finnissy’s works for string quartet. All of them are enigmatic, and in almost all of them he actively seeks to undermine in different ways the conventional quartet dynamic. Plain Harmony I, II and III live up to their title, projecting a general sense of hymn-like unity. However, the first progresses with a stodgy, unpredictable sense of direction and a thoroughly unclear main melodic line, even more so later on when it seems to get somewhat lost in its own ruminations. The second and third are less dense, focussing more on individual filigree, often within the context of alternating dynamic extremes (loud=united, soft=individuated); the second is done and dusted in less than 90 seconds, while the third, barely a minute longer, manages to attain a modest level of majesty. Multiple Forms of Constraint breaks up the quartet by pitting one violin against the other three players, the former of which doggedly persists in its folk-like material against a measured assortment of textural etherealia until a point when (minus the cello) they work together, second violin and viola fleshing out the first violin’s increasingly earnest outpourings. The disc contains two large-scale works composed in the early 1980s, Nobody’s Jig and the First String Quartet. The latter is the quartet at their most homogeneous, establishing a network of tiny tendrils seemingly fashioned from soft slivers of harmonics before exploding into fast intricacy and then splintering into quiet pizzicati, becoming distant and introverted. The piece is dominated by oscillations such as this, between tutti ‘in your face’ surges and retreats into near inaudibility, establishing a heightened, unpredictable environment that continually feels poised to do something completely different, filling the music and the listener with nervous excitement. Nobody’s Jig displays a similar kind of poise, though here within the context of a complex kind of equilibrium, delicately balanced around a behavioural dialogue between intensely individual counterpoint, coloured with muscular angular movement and tremolandi, and staccatos fired out over thin sustained pitches in the middle distance, which comes to feel strangely peaceful. This is later extended to encompass generalised textures and bursts of melody that subsequently melt into mush. But it’s one of the shortest works on the disc, the three-minute Sehnsucht, that arguably speaks loudest here. There’s something profoundly unsettling about this restrained little piece, its music inclined to remain in a relatively narrow bandwidth, seemingly one step removed from us, thin and yearning, with individual melodic impulses emerging out of the tightly compressed united group. In ways difficult to fathom or articulate, there’s something almost unbearably moving about it.

The earliest of Metier’s Finnissy chamber discs, titled Lost Lands, dates back to 2002, and is chiefly focussed on music with an emphasis on lines either in isolation or in dialogue with one or more others. The oboe, performed here by Christopher Redgate, is in the spotlight most of the time. In Moon’s goin’ down it’s entirely alone, alternating between slow, sliding, siren-like undulations and fast ornamental writing, temporarily thrown out of whack by a lengthy mess of trills Finnissy throws into the mix in its latter stages. Runnin’ wild is also a solo, which takes some time to live up to its title; contemplative, even ponderous early on, seemingly thinking things through in real time, it eventually lets rip with more and more protracted bursts, notes spilling out of the instrument all over each other. Along the way there are some more mellifluous asides, passionate but somewhat plaintive. Dilok, Delal and Kulamen Dilan pair up a solo instrument (oboe, oboe d’amore and soprano sax respectively) with percussion. The relationship between the two players varies: in Delal the oboe’s fast, assertive microtones easily dominate the granular metallic sounds until halfway through when the percussion switches to full-blooded toms that regularly threaten to overwhelm. The oboe only seems to survive but extending its notes to almost absurd lengths, but it works, bringing about an emphatic, very exciting dual effort at the work’s conclusion. Delal is more of a dialogue, the percussion decorating the oboe d’amore’s mournful melodies; the focus here is more on the shifting densities of the musical argument, but its abrupt end is more a termination than a conclusion. There’s a dance-like aspect to Kulamen Dilan, sax and tambourine regularly falling into patterns of cyclic repetition until, like Dilok, an abrupt midway shift in the percussion brings about a dramatic second half, the sax projecting almost too forcefully over wave after wave of drum tremolandi. A trio for oboe, bassoon and piano, Keroiylu rapidly reduces from a feverish contrapuntal texture to a simpler and narrower environment: the bassoon eventually drops out and the piano ends up as just a single line. Halfway through (the midpoint of Finnissy’s works often seems to be an important structural catalyst) the trio restarts with gusto but again immediately diminishes, with the piano now dropping out leaving a lengthy two-part invention for the oboe and bassoon alternating between extremes of dynamic. Title work Lost Lands, for E-flat clarinet, soprano sax, guitar, violin and piano, dates from 1977 and at nearly twenty-five minutes is by far the longest work on the disc. From the outset the work’s scope is evidently broad, the ensemble moving without haste, conveying that there’s much ground to cover: there’s nothing tentative about this, the music feels ambitious, even potentially visionary. Finnissy keeps the foreground shifting, with melody usually predominating over sustained resonances, and over time the music’s general attitude slowly shifts too, away from melody to a more behavioural/textural emphasis, the ensemble always acting as a group, moving carefully together (instrumental unity is arguably displayed more demonstratively here than in any of the works discussed above). It’s perhaps not obvious from that description, but the soundworld of Lost Lands is simply gorgeous: intimate, emotive, even sensuous at times. The music gets suddenly skittish later on, leading to a lengthy soprano sax conclusion, so strained that vocalisations regularly emerge, ending in a ferocious sequence of urgent squawks. Anyone familiar with Chris Redgate’s playing will know what to expect from these oboe pieces: his performances are blindingly exhilarating, particularly in the duets with Julian Warburton’s percussion, and the rendition of Lost Lands by Topologies is genuinely amazing. All of these discs are important listening for those wanting a deeper understanding of Michael Finnissy’s music, but this disc is absolutely essential.

Don’t forget, Divine Art (of whom Metier is one of many facets) have extended a special offer to readers of 5:4, enabling a 20% discount on all purchases from their website; enter the code DA16MAG at the checkout to get the discount. Click on any of the album covers above to be immediately whisked to the relevant page on the Divine Art website; the complete Metier catalogue can be viewed here.

Next time, in the final part of my Finnissy Metier retrospective, i’ll be examining the piano music.

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