Gramophone

You don’t have to decide whether the demands Michael Finnissy makes of his pianist are transcendental or diabolical to be dazzled by Ian Pace’s playing on this pair of discs. Even in the Piano Concerto No. 4, which takes the ‘bash and crash’ cluster style to new heights -or depths – there is plenty of quiet writing where Pace’s hands traverse the keyboard with a vertiginous velocity matched by supreme delicacy of touch. And his pearly voicing of the multiple trills with which the sixth concerto ends is further evidence of absolute technical control, a quality fully realised in the magnificently truthful recording by Metier’s producer, engineer and editor David Lefeber.

The two concertos, with a pair of shorter pieces, provide the prologue and epilogue to the set’s principal offering, the two books of Verdi Transcriptions, 18 pieces in all, and ranging in length from just over one minute to more than 26 minutes. The booklet notes, written by Pace himself, provide details of all the Verdi items involved, although the original tunes, rhythms and harmonies are only very rarely recognisable, and when they are the tension between them and the context Finnissy provides is considerable.

Verdi’s music is the starting point for transformation processes which aim to preserve – as Finnissy has put it – ‘the energy, passion and wide-rangingly generous humanity’ of Verdi’s operas. You could certainly argue that in its boldness, emotional intensity and love of display, Finnissy’s music is truer to Verdi than any abject imitator of the Verdi style could ever be. On the other hand, pushing things to extremes was not the Verdian way either: yet by the time we get to the long final movement, which only very gradually tears itself away from contemplative restraint to more florid and vehement gestures, you could be persuaded that such visionary intensity is exactly the kind of quality in a creative artist of which Verdi approved, and is as true to our contemporary experience as Verdi’s style was to the spirit of 19th century Europe. After all, there is nothing anti-romantic about Finnissy’s own style, and the beginning of Book 2 of Verdi Transcriptions is the point where he seems to display the roots of that style – in Skryabin, Szymanowski, even Sorabji – most clearly.

The Verdi Transcriptions were composed between 1972 and 1988 (with revisions in 1995), the two concertos in 1978 and 1980-1, and the original versions of Snowdrift and Two & Fro also belong to the 1970s. There is much more Finnissy piano music to come, much of it more recent, and Pace has it all at his phenomenal fingertips. This must be one of the most ambitious recording projects of our time, and it deserves the widest encouragement and support.

—Arnold Whittall