Tempo

The earliest work on the New Music Players CD, Unknown Ground (1989-90), has been well described by Christopher Fox as ‘one of the most passionately unequivocal works in the Finnissy catalogue’. With the peerless Richard Jackson projecting the texts against a telling instrumental commentary for violin, cello and piano, this alternates settings of stark statements by AIDS victims with three Russian poems (set in English) that meditate on mortality. Unknown Ground offers the strongest possible evidence of Finnissy’s greatest virtue as a composer. In contrast to, say, Penderecki, who responded to the outrage of 9 /11 with a piano concerto that — in the memorable words of a Polish reviewer — seems to represent the belated triumph of Socialist Realism’, Finnissy avoids the kind of fervent aestheticising of real life that merely underlines the limitations of art. Subtly inflected melodic writing — modal, microtonal — creates a ritualistic atmosphere that can veer with equal authenticity between the austerely elegiac and the defiantly expressionistic; the piece’s final outburst is as harrowing in its despair as that of Schubert’s rejected lover in Die Winterreise.

No less memorable, if inevitably more oblique, is Kritik der Urteilskraft (2001) for the `Pierrof quintet of flute, darinet, violin, cello and piano. The reference to Kant’s Critique of Judgement might involve a mordant acknowledgement of the great philosopher’s belief that, with its conceptless decorativeness, music is the least of all the arts, and also a possible objection to Kant’s insistence that art should never confront the ugly or offensive. In what sounds like a dismissal of rococo superficiality — current opinion is that Kant was tone-deaf — Finnissy’s music moves on to mount its own critique of Western classicism as stable continuity. His remarkable indusiveness might not be as explicit in Kritik der Urteilskraft as in some of his larger-scale compositions, but the principle of challenging rather than simply ignoring dassicism drives the music’s discourse and illuminates its wide expressive and textural range. After this, A propos de Nice (2001-2) for piano trio, music to go with Jean Vigo’s silent film of that title from 1930, is less austere, but no less eloquent in its traversal of territory bounded by the sustained and the fragmented. It is also notably imaginative in its use of its three-strong medium. These fine, lucidly recorded performances have been worth the wait.

—Arnold Whittall