I guess that Michael Finnissy is an acquired taste that I am in the process of acquiring. Perhaps the problem was that I reviewed this CD shortly after writing a programme note for Gerald Finzi’s song-cycle Let us Garlands Bring and Edward Elgar’s Sea Pictures . There is no connection except that both works are sung. Yet overall, Finnissy’s Singular Voices impressed me.
This retrospective covers vocal works composed over a period of more than twenty years. The earliest, ‘Song 1′ was written in 1966 and the latest on this CD, the Beuk o’ Newcassel Sangs was completed in 1991. The liner notes explain that these ‘explore the different ways that Finnissy has sought to open up the multiple tradition/s of both solo unaccompanied song … and the classical duo of voice and piano, by introducing the clarinet …’
There are influences aplenty here: Ives, Schoenberg, Webern, Nono and Boulez. However, a more unexpected source of Finnissy’s style is the Romantic Italian opera bel canto style from the 18 th and 19th centuries. This came about from his time working as an opera-house repetiteur.
The composer has written that ‘I like to shape the text when I write the music, before and during, I cut and alter texts … the poem is already there, if you want to read the original …’ He further suggests that ‘the text has to disturb and shock me and seduce me, and then we find a place to ‘mate.”
The two main parts of this CD are a selection from Songs 1-18 produced between 1966 and 1978. These feature texts by Tasso, Swinburne, Petrarch and Whitman. The other main group are the above-mentioned settings of 19 th century folksongs from Newcastle. These are deconstructed and reassembled from the original texts. They are not Lindisfarne’s or George Butterworth’s idea of folk-song: neither are they ‘The Keel Row’ or ‘The Blaydon Races’. Nevertheless, they are effective in their own right.
There is a third piece: ‘Same as We’ derived from a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. This is a ‘theatrical monologue’ rather than a song. It is ‘double tracked’ by the vocalist with no instrumental accompaniment. It is really quite a beautiful piece.
I do wish that producers of CD liner-notes and track-listings would always give the date of the composer’s birth (and death if appropriate) and also the dates of composition ‘up-front’. In the present disc the listener has to read through the essay to find out when each work was written. No date is given for Song 14 or at least none that I could find.
That said, the notes are helpful and lay out a road map for approaching these ‘haunting’ tunes. They have been written by the present pianist David Lesser and are presented in two parts: ‘Michael Finnissy – A Singular Voice’ and ‘Thoughts on Performing Michael Finnissy’s Vocal Music’. Apparently, the composer is noted for setting out of copyright texts, so there are no issues if he ‘messes about’ with the author’s original intention. The texts of all the songs are given.
The recital is remarkable. Clare Lesser has a pure voice that is used to good effect. I am not quite sure about the pseudo-Geordie? accent in the Newcassel Sangs , nevertheless it does seem to work well. The pianist, David Lesser, and the clarinettist, Carl Rosman perform their challenging parts with great diligence.
I would certainly not recommend listening to this survey of Finnissy’s vocal music from end to end. It would be just too much: the high tessitura of much of this music would lead the listener to reach for the aspirin. However the ‘Newcassel’ songs can be taken at a sitting.
Finnissy is credited with being the leading luminary of the ‘new complexity’ movement. I understand this. The nature of these works suggest that it is an intricacy that has been presented in simplicity. The composer has used whatever technical means is at his disposal to fuse text and melody into a concentrated form. Complex yes, but singular in effect.
I implied above that Michael Finnissy is not ‘my bag’ and I hold to this. On the other hand, music is nothing if it is not about adventure, new discoveries and challenge. I am privileged to have been introduced to what are clearly striking vocal works that cover a huge range of musicality and emotion. His indeed is a ‘Singular Voice’.
Meanwhile back to Finzi and Elgar.