Proms 2012: Michael Finnissy – Piano Concerto No. 2, Harrison Birtwistle – Gigue Machine (UK Premières) & Brian Elias – Electra Mourns (World Première)

by 5:4

Last weekend’s Proms Matinee, given by the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Clark Rundell, was the concert i had been most eagerly awaiting in this year’s season, featuring as it did some of my favourite composers and three premières. Back in April i opined that this concert “may just turn out to be the highlight of the whole season”; i think that prediction was pretty close to the mark.

There aren’t many composers whose work you can identify in just a couple of chords, but that is precisely the case with the beginning of Michael Finnissy‘s Piano Concerto No. 2, which featured Nicolas Hodges as soloist. No-one writes for the piano like he does, on this occasion opening the work with a lengthy solo for the instrument, moving back and forth between mysteriousness and madness, occupied most at the extreme ends of the keyboard. It’s interesting hearing this work so closely after Richard Dubugnon’s Battlefield Concerto; it could be argued that Finnissy’s concerto doesn’t so much explore notions of conflict as their outcome—due both to the nature and the extent of its material, the piano’s extensive solo assumes absolute command over proceedings. It’s some minutes before the orchestra (comprising just two alto flutes and strings) appears, string pizzicati being showered over the soloist before switching to bowed harmonics and glissandi, dying back all the time. The piano becomes sparse, placing resonant low notes into the string texture, which becomes a larger, semi-solid diaphanous mass; together with the piano, the result—which Finnissy thankfully allows to continue for some time—is an amazing cloud-like formation that practically defies the ear to make sense of what it’s hearing: static but chugging, extremely tense, as though something immense was just waiting to happen. Sounds like this are rare indeed. This is as collaborative as the concerto gets; a piano eruption punctures the relationship, and as it picks out a convoluted bassline of sorts, the strings don’t seem to know what to do; and the alto flutes don’t so much find a voice as sigh and gasp their way into existence as the strings end up shivering. The flutes more-or-less confine themselves to the minute gaps left in the piano’s momentary pauses, and with the strings they stop altogether as the piano lets fly a final outburst, halting but massive.

It’s ridiculous and shameful that such an interesting and ear-grabbing work as this should have been entirely neglected in the UK for no fewer than 35 years (it was first performed in Saintes in July 1977), compounded by the fact that, according to the online Proms Archive, this is only the second time Finnissy’s music has been featured at the Proms, the last of which was 14 years ago. One can only hope he will be much better represented in years to come; he is truly one of our best.

To describe a piece as an ‘exercise’ may seem a slight on its level of interest, but everything about Harrison Birtwistle‘s Gigue Machine brought that word to mind, but in the best of senses. To an extent—despite several attempts—i think i may have failed to glean many of its subtleties, but that didn’t prevent it from being an engaging experience. Birtwistle has described the work as “mimicking a fantasia in two parts”, one resonant, the other staccato. These two musical entities can be heard moving around and all over each other throughout the work, which passes through an extended series of episodes, drawing on about as wide a range of moods and behaviours as one could imagine. Unsurprisingly, given the title, an underlying sense of Baroque influence is strong, which is perhaps why it often feels like an ‘exercise’—in the sense of something significant being worked through, methodically and rigorously. An assortment of patterns and processes continually rise and fall, the active ingredient in Birtwistle’s compositional formula; at times, the twin musics are kept apart, but some of the work’s most engrossing passages find them interpenetrating, resulting in highly convoluted counterpoint. There are times when the serious tone of the work, together with the nature of its material (half of it, anyway) makes Gigue Machine feel potentially rather dry, but Birtwistle keeps tabs on this through a number of reflective moments, providing some much-needed introspection.

Brian Elias‘ new work Electra Mourns brought the concert to a close in the most anguished fashion possible, with an extended setting of a section from Sophocles’ play. Electra mistakenly believes her brother Orestes to be dead; Orestes has himself misled Electra to establish whether she is to be trusted (he has come to exact revenge for his father’s death). Disguised, Orestes places a funeral urn in Electra’s hands, claiming it to contain his own ashes, to which she responds in a lengthy lament (see below for a link to the text). However, the ruse is swiftly dispelled, and the play moves on to the next stage in Orestes’ plan, so it’s a somewhat quizzical choice just to latch onto this one passage; either Elias wants to say something about sororal love, or maybe he’s just interested in grief. Either way, Electra Mourns is breathtakingly powerful, utilising a mezzo-soprano (Susan Bickley) and cor anglais (Nicholas Daniel) to become the combined mouthpiece of Electra, reinforced by a string orchestra. Elias has chosen to set the original Greek, yet while that decision distances the immediacy of the words, the music is so startlingly vivid that the gist is readily graspable. There’s a drawback to this clarity, and it’s perhaps churlish to mention it, but the sheer weight of grief that Elias creates almost blunts itself. It’s what i’ve described in the past as a a kind of emotional ‘clipping’, akin to the experience of The Passion of the Christ, where the repeated attempt to move from one extreme of grief and despair to one yet more grief-stricken and despairing reaches a point of numb implausibility. Elias doesn’t exactly numb the listener, but there are times—particularly in the centre of the work—where the protracted histrionics reach a point of sympathetic exhaustion, with a concomitant inclination to become detached. But that’s a niggle more than a complaint, and in any case there are some wonderfully restrained moments, none better than the section towards the end where the mezzo levels out, becoming more quietly plaintive, and Elias drapes her words in the most exquisite texture from the strings, muted and translucent, moving in a semi-regular pulse against the free vocal line, creating a strange and delirious effect. Taken as a whole, the force and beauty of Elias’ setting only makes one wish he’d expand this triumphant scena into a full-blown opera; it might just give Richard Strauss a run for his money.


Michael Finnissy - Piano Concerto No. 2
  • Loved it! (48%, 14 Votes)
  • Liked it (24%, 7 Votes)
  • Meh (3%, 1 Votes)
  • Disliked it (14%, 4 Votes)
  • Hated it! (10%, 3 Votes)

Total Voters: 29

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Harrison Birtwistle - Gigue Machine
  • Loved it! (29%, 7 Votes)
  • Liked it (25%, 6 Votes)
  • Meh (21%, 5 Votes)
  • Disliked it (17%, 4 Votes)
  • Hated it! (8%, 2 Votes)

Total Voters: 24

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**The audio has been removed as a commercial recording is now available.**


Brian Elias - Electra Mourns
  • Loved it! (24%, 5 Votes)
  • Liked it (29%, 6 Votes)
  • Meh (29%, 6 Votes)
  • Disliked it (10%, 2 Votes)
  • Hated it! (10%, 2 Votes)

Total Voters: 21

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Programme Note

The context of the speech I have set from ‘Electra’, a 5th Century BC play by the great dramatist Sophocles is:

A messenger gives Electra and her mother, Clytemnestra, a fabricated account of her brother, Orestes’ heroic death in a chariot race and his funeral. (He had been sent away as a young child by Electra to protect his life after the murder of their father Agamemnon by her mother and her then lover, later husband, Aegisthus.)

But Orestes is not dead; he returns to his home in disguise with his friend Pylades, wanting to test Electra’s loyalty to him. He gives her an urn which he says contains her brother’s ashes. Electra mourns before Orestes while cradling the urn.

Sophocles concentrates on Electra’s character and her motives. He portrays her as someone relentless and insatiable in her grief and in her desire for revenge for the murder of her father by her mother. Sophocles makes us question Electra’s morality and her sense of judgement; she is driven to near madness by her obsessive grieving and wish for revenge.

What sort of daughter would want to murder her mother and stepfather so savagely? What sort of sister would seek to propel her brother into this blood-libel? What sort of person seeks this as her only means of catharsis? Sophocles reminds us that despite the violence of her anger, Electra can still feel love and tenderness towards her brother but that such love may only be alive because she sees him as her sole hope of help in her quest for vengeance.

The work, a scena set in the original ancient Greek, was completed in January 2011. It is scored for Mezzo Soprano, solo Cor Anglais and String Orchestra, and lasts approximately 17 minutes. I am immensely grateful to Francesca Spiegel for her invaluable help with the language and its meaning.

—Brian Elias

Electra’s lament

Ah, memorial of him whom I loved best on earth! Ah, Orestes, whose life hath no relic left save this,- how far from the hopes with which I sent thee forth is the manner in which I receive thee back! Now I carry thy poor dust in my hands; but thou wert radiant, my child, when I sped the forth from home! Would that I had yielded up my breath, ere, with these hands, I stole thee away, and sent thee to a strange land, and rescued the from death; that so thou mightest have been stricken down on that self-same day, and had thy portion in the tomb of thy sire!

But now, an exile from home and fatherland, thou hast perished miserably, far from thy sister; woe is me, these loving hands have not washed or decked thy corpse, nor taken up, as was meet, their sad burden from the flaming pyre. No! at the hands of strangers, hapless one, thou hast had those rites, and so art come to us, a little dust in a narrow urn.

Ah, woe is me for my nursing long ago, so vain, that I oft bestowed on thee with loving toil I For thou wast never thy mother’s darling so much as mine; nor was any in the house thy nurse but I; and by thee I was ever called ‘sister.’ But now all this hath vanished in a day, with thy death; like a whirlwind, thou hast swept all away with thee. Our father is gone; I am dead in regard to thee; thou thyself hast perished: our foes exult; that mother, who is none, is mad with joy,- she of whom thou didst oft send me secret messages, thy heralds, saying that thou thyself wouldst appear as an avenger. But our evil fortune. thine and mine, hath reft all that away, and hath sent thee forth unto me thus,- no more the form that I loved so well, but ashes and an idle shade.

Ah me, ah me! O piteous dust! Alas, thou dear one, sent on a dire journey, how hast undone me,- undone me indeed, O brother mine!

Therefore take me to this thy home, me who am as nothing, to thy nothingness, that I may dwell with thee henceforth below; for when thou wert on earth, we shared alike; and now I fain would die, that I may not be parted from thee in the grave. For I see that the dead have rest from pain.

(translation by Richard Claverhouse Jebb – the complete play can be read here)

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[…] Broadcast in August 2012, this performance took place at an afternoon Proms concert from Cadogan Hall, performed by the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Clark Rundell. My review of the rest of the concert can be found here. […]

[…] wondering why on earth they took so long to get here. Last year’s most glaring example was Michael Finnissy’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which took 35 years to be heard here, while the UK première at last night’s Prom, Helmut […]

[…] ever heard at the Proms—has written a new work involving the Royal Albert Hall organ, and having whinged in 2012 at how ignored Michael Finnissy has been at the Proms, there’ll be the first performance of […]

[…] Three years ago i remarked how the performance of Michael Finnissy‘s Piano Concerto No. 2 was only the composer’s second appearance at the Proms, opining that “one can only hope he will be much better represented in years to come; he is truly one of our best”. It’s therefore wonderful that Finnissy has been commissioned for this year’s Proms season, producing a work that forges a connection of sorts with Sibelius, whose music occupied the rest of the concert. Titled after Sibelius’ affectionate nickname, Janne is somewhat special in Finnissy’s output, as it is only the ninth time that he has written for orchestra, a curious fact in itself for a composer whose worklist currently comprises in excess of 320 pieces. Having hitherto flitted between large and chamber-size orchestras, for Janne Finnissy has utilised the same modest forces used by Sibelius in the brace of symphonies (numbers 3 and 4) performed either side of it, expanded only by the addition of a glockenspiel. […]

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