Metier has released four albums of the piano works, which doesn’t sound like a lot but they nonetheless constitute over ten hours of music, including some of Finnissy’s most important works for the instrument. Released over a period of fifteen years, these releases successively grow in terms of both scope and duration. All but one of them are performed by arguably the composer’s most definitive interpreter, pianist Ian Pace.
The earliest album, from 1998, is Folklore, features the composer himself at the piano, in an anthology of eleven works all of which either derive from or are at their heart rooted in folk song. Finnissy’s attraction to folk idioms is due to a variety of aspects, including its being a melodic line without harmonisation, its role as a “private utterance” (Finnissy notes how “some folk singers would not divulge certain songs to collectors because they were too precious”) and the fact that they were not composed or financial reward. The geographical range of folk music drawn on in this collection of works is considerable, spanning Romania, China, Poland, Azerbaijan, Afro-America, Australia, Macedonia and Britain. A great deal of human history and culture is thereby encompassed in these pieces.
The source materials aren’t merely served up as quotations, but make themselves manifest in the music in two important respects. Their appearance at surface level is clearly the product of assimilation and consideration, Finnissy handling them with the freedom that comes both from genuine affection and a deep understanding of how, what and why they are. Beyond this, they colour the music in a more generalised way, lending various stylistic and idiomatic traits, harmonic, rhythmic, motivic. An especially striking example of this are the four gone-in-an-instant Polskie Tance (Polish Dances) that originate from 1955, when Finnissy was just nine years old.
Each miniature is something of a study, a kind of thumbnail sketch of a dialect, the first of which (with obvious debt to Bartók) is a deliriously boisterous twenty-five second romp that, both despite and due to its brevity, is an astonishingly precocious compositional achievement, one that testifies to the importance of the piano at a very early stage in the composer’s musical life. In the other works on the disc, composed from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s, the incorporation of folk elements into Finnissy’s broader compositional language is less stylistically mannered, more subtle and nuanced. A consistent approach involves making a melody the epicentre (both figurative and literal) of an intense exercise in embellishment and ornament.
A touchingly simple rendition can be heard in My love is like a red red rose (composed for Finnissy’s partner), tiny sparks softly firing out from the melody at its core; one hesitates to use this word for Finnissy, but there’s something almost coy about the soft sensuality displayed here, each phrase almost blushing at it sounds. Sibling piece How dear to me goes even further, its barely adorned melody tapping into an intense intimacy that practically makes us blush as we listen. With a little more momentum this becomes the soundworld of Lylyly li, intricately weaving two tremulous, filigree lines around each other so closely that they each appear to want to occupy precisely the same space.
But it’s the half-hour title work that literally and musically goes furthest at exploring line – although, having said that, it seems fair to say that Finnissy often keeps the piece relatively confined. In its entirety, Folklore comprises four parts that together last a little over two hours; to date, only the second has been recorded. It draws on a wide range of sources – including piobaireachd (Scottish bagpiping), Cornelius Cardew, the spiritual Deep River (Folklore 2 is dedicated to Michael Tippett), a Sussex folk-song as well as two withdrawn piano works of Finnissy’s own: one titled Haen (also related to bagpiping) and an earlier version of Folklore 3. Overall, the piece has a kind of ‘default position’ to which it regularly returns: long episodes of monody often elaborated and/or ornamented by varying quantities of trill. For all the ostensible simplicity of this, while many of these passages are harmonically focused and stable, Finnissy at times uncannily causes the material to tilt and sag such that everything suddenly becomes unsure, here and there exacerbated with violent explosions that remarkably retain their ornamental quality, making a trill feel something like a pneumatic drill. Around these episodes are contrasting bursts of variegated counterpoint, heavy and brooding, loud and pointed, assertive and exploratory, though perhaps the most striking comes around two-thirds of the way through, the piano seemingly growing reticent, receding away in the middle distance, as though mulling over the music entirely to itself. It establishes a pensivity that remains for the rest of the piece, all the while ascending into the stratosphere.
A truly engrossing composition.
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