What with 2016 being Michael Finnissy’ s 70th year, it’s heartening to see some new releases celebrating his work. Throughout his career, no label has done more to champion Finnissy than Metier , whose latest CD Singular Voices, released yesterday, is their twelfth devoted to Finnissy’s music (I’ll be exploring the rest in future articles). Recorded over a decade ago, the disc features a variety of works for soprano with and without clarinet and/or piano, performed by Clare Lesser , Carl Rosman and David Lesser respectively. The works date from a wide period of time, the earliest from a collection of 18 songs composed from 1966–78, the most recent from 1990, but a sense of both consistency and even continuity can be perceived throughout. This is clearly all music by the same composer.
Many of the pieces are part of the engagement with aspects of folk music and vernacular utterance that is one of the most fundamental concerns of Finnissy’s entire output. Words are by no means always present or necessary; the 15-minute Lord Melbourne takes the form of a mobile, soprano, clarinet and piano floating ostensibly freely though with a prevailing tendency (real or imagined) towards connectivity. Harmonically, the instruments sound not so much governed by an underlying scheme as simply keen to align themselves with one another, whereas rhythmically things are very much more individual, resulting in a somewhat sleepy, balmy atmosphere that drifts in and out of periods of focus. Put another way, this is music perpetually in a state of journeying—and while there’s ultimately no destination, the soprano’s occasional absences make for moments of repose that punctuate and demarcate the work’s otherwise free-form structure. It’s hypnotic and really very beautiful. Of the five songs, one is wordless, two are set to Italian texts (by Tasso and Petrarch) and two to English (Swinburne and Whitman), and what’s especially striking, beyond Finnissy’s different approaches, is the way Clare Lesser varies her vocal delivery accordingly (an illuminating essay by Lesser addressing this aspect is included in the CD booklet). The Italian Songs 1 and 16 have a heightened dramatic sensibility, such that there are almost two interpretative layers simultaneously, one articulating the song, the other extemporaneously responding and elaborating upon it; passion is strong here, ever lurking but only occasionally erupting through the surface. Song 11 is more measured, Swinburne rendered somewhat remote, even plain, despite the contortions in the melodic writing, whereas Song 14 uses Whitman as a springboard for an aerobatic display directly paralleling the words. But it’s the textless Song 15, from 1974, which is the most far-reaching, encompassing the gamut of vocal expression: one minute plain, the next brilliantly ornamented; soft intimations yielding to wildly ardent outbursts; graduated smoothness answered by abrupt, angular lines. It’s like a cross between birdsong and plainsong, an entirely personal, inwardly-directed litany.
Same As We, a more substantial song dating from 1990, features two sopranos, Clare Lesser rather wonderfully duetting with herself. The two voices do overlap, but the overriding attitude is one of taking turns, one opting for sustained pitches as the other moves more forcefully in the foreground, or else simply singing one at a time. It’s disarmingly immersive, Tennyson’s narrative given real power by Finnissy, to the point that the encroaching “storm … That will sweet away thrones, churches, traditions, customs…” causes the song to fracture and halt before reforming for a heartfelt coda. Although very immediate, it’s a complex song that rewards multiple listens.
The Beuk o’Newcassel Sangs from 1988 taps into a rugged, grimy mode of existence characterised by prominent microtonal material for the clarinet. The vocal writing is again often folk-like, utilising lilting, dance-like patterns that at times create a bitter friction with the words; ‘I thought to marry a parson’ is especially poignant in this respect, as though trying to rise above the melancholy facing the woman who, having married a keelman, realises that her “good days are doon”. The sixth song, ‘There’s Quayside for sailors’ is very amusing, Finnissy turning the text’s potentially dry list of places for this or that into an ornamented celebration of both place and potential, with lovely overlapping lines, soprano, piano and clarinet all jostling to occupy the same pitch space. The vigorous sense of spirit permeating these texts is omnipresent in Finnissy’s settings, making for a group of songs that articulate themselves without artifice or pretence, but instead with a bullish resolve in spite of their difficult and disheartening contexts.
Singular Voices is a beautiful collection of modern songwriting, one that forms a vital part in the ongoing understanding and appreciation of Michael Finnissy’s music. And while all three players are overwhelmingly sensitive to the considerable shifts in tone and manner presented in these pieces, Clare Lesser deserves especially high praise for a performance that’s so varied and nuanced it seems scarcely credible. It’s fantastic that these recordings have finally made it into the world.