There follows a gap of well over a decade [since the previous piano music disc] before the most recent Metier Finnissy release, the five-disc box set of The History of Photography in Sound, which at a duration of 5½ hours, is the composer’s longest work to date. In turning to this piece, I’m reminded of the final stanza of Dante’s Divine Comedy, where the protagonist is forced to break off due to the intensity of what confronts him: “At this point power failed high fantasy” (tr. Mark Musa). From a critical perspective, perhaps THoPiS presents this the other way round: Finnissy’s high fantasy practically fails one’s power to write meaningfully about it. It surely goes without saying that the type of musical engagement taking place here is an order of magnitude greater than that of the Verdi Transcriptions. Yet even though the eleven movements of THoPiS have durations of between thirteen and sixty-seven minutes, which may imply less opportunity to take a step back and/or maybe grab a breather, Finnissy’s command of the ebb and flow of both a dramatic narrative and musical argument incorporates a vast range of perspectives that ensure the piece is first and foremost a dialogue with the listener rather than a 330-minute torrent by which one can do little more than simply be drenched.
In this respect, the title is useful and instructive: it encompasses musical, cultural, technological and, importantly, personal ‘history’; the reference to photography draws on aspects of reproducibility (Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility’ is directly relevant), as well as the engagement already discussed in the preceding discs, paralleling the visual idea of the ‘snapshot’ with the musical practice of quotation. Once again, the range of sources Finnissy draws upon is considerable, by far the most extensive of his output, including popular song, spirituals and a plethora of folk musics from the farthest reaches of the globe alongside composers such as Alkan, Berlioz, Busoni, Debussy and Wagner, referenced in ways that are by no means always intended to be apparent. Despite the similarities, though, engaging with THoPiS is an altogether different activity from the majority of his music, and certainly from the three releases previously discussed: in every sense, it takes time. Each movement is an absorbing narrative in and of itself, and without wishing to claim this as the best way of experiencing the piece, listening to the movements separately (even with relatively short gaps in between) is a beneficial way to listen and in turn find various ways into the larger whole. Third movement North American Spirituals is particularly fascinating in the convoluted way Finnissy grapples with a host of diverse (Afro-)Americana, channelling the exploratory spirit of Ives and in the process entering into episodes of profound tenderness in the midst of aggressive density. And i’ve often found myself returning to sixth movement Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets, drawn back by its extremes of utterance, ranging from near-inaudible caressing quietude to the kind of ludicrous, over-pressurised borderline incoherence heard in Piano Concerto No. 4. But ultimately,Etched Bright in Sunlight, the final movement, is to my mind its most telling music: not simply because it’s quite recognisably a ‘finale’ of sorts, but also for its hugely exciting toccata-like demeanour – maintained, with digressions, for nearly half an hour! – and above all for its use of pianistic colour, spanning the entire keyboard (most of the movements focus on the central register of the instrument). A soft outbreak of pensive counterpoint in the run-up to the end (utilising Bach) is a delightful jump-cut, adding a dramatic twist before the work’s climactic final rush of frenzied activity, Finnissy’s ‘camera’ abruptly fading out at the very end. Ian Pace’s commitment to bringing this work to life in this landmark recording – surely one of the most significant contemporary music releases of recent times – is simply awe-inspiring: pick a superlative, any superlative, and it might go some way to living up to this almost unbelievable achievement. Pace even somehow found time to write an entire accompanying thesis that proves incredibly helpful in navigating further into the deep, inspirational strata of Finnissy’s music.