Unknown Ground , completed in 1990, is as brutally down-to-earth as a song cycle can be. Continuing a theme explored in the piano piece Stanley Stokes, East Street 1836 , written the previous year (and continued in his 1995 music theatre work Shameful Vice ), Unknown Ground is concerned with the anguish and suffering of gay men, with the spectre of AIDS a dreadful, Damoclean omnipresence. As in This Church , the songs feature the honest, unvarnished words of ordinary people, interspersed with poetic texts by a trio of Russians, Sergei Yesenin, Nikolai Klyuev and Mikhail Kuzmin (set in English). It’s tempting, before actually engaging with the music, to regard these as two separate strands, between which Finnissy is setting out to oscillate. But the opposite happens: the words of Nick W, Steve R, Philip X and Brent T, excerpted from interviews conducted with them, become a kind of grounding, a default position of stoic fear that occasionally, seamlessly, breaks free and entertains a brief excursion away from painful prose. They are united in use of the first person, prose and poetry alike continually reflecting back to the self as the reference point for everything. It’s infinitely understandable; when you’re staring at death—or, more likely, when death’s staring at you—one can imagine life becomes increasingly solipsistic.
But the singer, a baritone (Richard Jackson), is not alone: Finnissy supplies company in the form of violin, cello and piano. Their relationship with the voice is a supportive and somewhat reverential one; in opening song ‘I don’t think of death’, for example, the cello—muted—is overtly tentative, sitting on drones through the baritone’s lengthy, irregular reflections, only prepared to offer its own counterpoint in between them. ‘A patch of blackened earth’, which follows, is similar, featuring a quietly shocked piano preoccupied with spare, tolling low octaves, opening up slightly when the voice ends (and when it does, it’s profoundly moving). And in the third song ‘I was afraid of not being able to see the garden grow’, the white hot intensity of the baritone is responded to with cool vibrato-less dyads, which later become dull, repeated pizzicati, dazed and lifeless. The fourth and fifth songs afford some semblance of duet, in the form of cello filigree and rather sinister slowly rising, grinding violin glissandi respectively. The sixth, ‘Trapped in crystal’, reverts the instruments to hesitance and reticence, but the baritone’s resigned acceptance (a kind of inverted keening) that “everything is uncertain … nothing lasts for ever” triggers a hitherto unheard audacity, a sequence of huge, impassioned eruptive climaxes that bring the cycle to an end as though with deep physical cuts to the heart. Even for Finnissy, always a fearless composer, it’s brave to explore musically words that are not merely tragic, but defeated. Yet their quietness intimates an all-powerful, boundless rage and fury that’s heartrendingly real and immediate and authentic and true. Richard Jackson’s performance is simply astonishing; the occasional resemblance of his voice to Peter Pears only adds extra emotional weight to the multiple layers of exposed, open wounds; and the New Music Players are impeccable in their understanding of when, and to what extent, to keep their distance.
The other two works on the disc are non-vocal but equally substantial (both well over 20 minutes). In Kritik der Urteilskraft (2001) for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, the ensemble displays a similarly restrained attitude, placing notes carefully into the air to form slow, sustained chords. We’re back in the landscape of drones and melodies, although the latter are for the most part germinal seeds of melodic potential, suspended as if in a liquid. The cello, in particular, takes a lyrical lead but the overall effect is strange, giving the illusion of progress within what amounts to a stasis. Which then, without warning, falls apart, fracturing into a disjunct collection of brief utterances. Is anything connected any longer? The absence of the piano (an absence that only gradually becomes apparent) makes one wonder if it was the glue holding everything together. Upon its return, some minutes later, balance and coherence are restored, and with it a united sense of calm and maturity, the music no longer supported by drones but now a more substantial, though just as delicate, counterpoint. The piano trio Á propos de Nice , completed in 2002, could hardly be more different at its outset, rambunctiously playful, with a Shostakovich-like rapid rhythmic momentum. But it stalls almost as soon as it’s got going, becoming altogether more reflective (even borderline ponderous). And then it’s off again, propelled by a torrent of material from the piano, only to fall back again into spare wisps of sound. From a dramatic perspective it’s quite extreme in its volte-face behavioural twists, and while it speaks with a somewhat aloof kind of expressiveness, it remains lyrically strong, impelled by a tacit but always apparent emotional subtext. Recorded in the summer of 2003, it took ten years for this CD to see light of day, but it was worth the wait, a disc demonstrating both the rawness and convolution of Finnissy’s musical language.