You might call Michael Finnissy a ‘post-modern’ composer (but in his case ‘post’ doesn’t mean ‘Thank God modernism’s over’); it’s no less relevant that he’s a formidable pianist who knows a vast repertory of music. His Verdi Transcriptions are not usually literal: you’ll sometimes but not often be able to sing along with Verdi’s tunes. They might just as well be termed ‘Meditations prompted by Verdi’. In No. 5, for example, rooted in the quintet from Ernani, a sonorous and indeed Verdian cantabile is often accompanied by a complex of other material, at times suggesting what Liszt might have made of that quintet, often how Charles Ives might have treated it; you may fancy that you hear echoes of many other composers. As if all this weren’t rich enough, together with it goes an acute understanding and enjoyment of all the things that sheer virtuosity can draw from the piano. My listening notes, which for much newish music tend to be sprinkled with technical terms to be translated into decent English later, here include ‘wow!’ and ‘crumbs!’.
But it’s an entirely creative use of virtuosity, even in the feats that Finnissy demands from the pianist in his Fourth Concerto. Several hands and superhuman velocity are the minimum requirement here (towards the end there’s a passage that almost out-Nancarrows Nancarrow) but it’s the piano’s range of colours and textures that is being explored, not the pianist’s ego. Often enough in the Verdi pieces (a majestic 90 minute cycle), Finnissy is matching Verdian imagery with pianistic and fundamentally modern ones: a limpid glitter evokes the Venetian lagoon of I due Foscari but tempests follow, and lightning staccato clusters, and sepulchral rumblings like a Kraken stirring beneath the Adratic. Grace notes in an aria from Giovanna d’Arco prompt poised and ornate lines of Finnissy’s own, then denser and even more florid counterpoint. Most striking of all, in the last and longest transcription of ‘Tu che la vanità’ from Don Carlos, isolated and detached descending notes – sketching emptiness and stasis – seem less derived from, than the essence of, Verdi’s melody. What develops may be Finnissy’s own ‘dramatization’ of that opera’s plot, and the end – complex overlapping downward scales, each setting off clouds of bass resonance – is both a highly original response to Verdi and a magnificently pianistic sound.
At the other end of Finnissy’s range, To and Fro is a delicate and charming sketch, rooted in the blues, while the 13th Transcription presents – in 70 seconds – a Verdian melody intact but with evocative ‘scenery’ as a sort of miniature Nile Scene. Throughout, Ian Pace’s technique astounds, and his enthusiasm for this music is infectious. In his booklet note he calls the Verdi work ‘one of the most significant contemporary cycles for piano’. His playing, and a splendidly sonorous recording, make that claim seem an understatement.