Gramophone

Michael Finnissy’s programme notes have a tendency to make the ache of writing music sound like a walk in the park. He tells us that Áwâz-e Niyâz , premiered in 2012, was inspired by the traditions of Persia; that his title translates as ‘Songs from Mysterious Necessity’; that the practice of Persian improvised song mirrors his own compositional methodology of intuitively shunting archetypal melodic fragments around the staves. ‘These fragments are then rendered specific in pitch and rhythm,’ he says ‘the outcome of which provides ongoing impetus and narrative.’ None of which really tells us how he came to write this 55-minute odyssey for oboe (doubling lupophon) and piano. It has a ritualistic, meditative quality which reminds you that Finnissy mentions that ‘niyâz’ can also translate as ‘prayerfulness’, and that he is keen to stress his structure as ‘impulsive’. During the opening minutes, with the oboe moving across melodic patterns like a Spirograph, lines jaywalking back through themselves, reels rather than clean-cut ‘Western’ phrasing, it’s as if Finnissy is sending a postcard from a souk. And then suddenly you fall deep into his fantasy; melodic utterances push against structural constraints to yank open the space, you lose your place and realise how liberating that is, syntactical alignment between piano and oboe falls apart and intrigue mounts as you wonder just how Finnissy can reintroduce the oboe after a piano cadenza that feels entirely self-contained.

Anyone fearing that ‘New Music for a New Oboe’ sounds uncomfortably like an instrument vendor’s demo CD must think again. Christopher Redgate explains how he re-crafted the conventional oboe to fit with the demands of contemporary composition – and how he developed the lupophon, a bass oboe – but frankly, who’d care unless composers were interested in using it? True enough, Finnissy’s piano-playing isn’t captured with ideal clarity but the piece itself is a reminder of his mastery of scale. Details are telescoped in upon: room to breathe is what’s required. Áwâz-e Niyâz is a short piece that happens to run over 55 minutes. Edwin Roxburgh’s soberer The Well Tempered Oboe gives Redgate plenty of technical substance to chew on; but the Finnissy obliges him to play beyond himself.

—Philip Clark