The Classical Reviewer

British composer, Michael Finnissy was born in London in 1946 and started writing music at an early age, later receiving the William Yeats Hurlstone composition-prize at the Croydon Music Festival. Awarded a Foundation Scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music he studied composition with Bernard Stevens and Humphrey Searle. He was subsequently awarded an Octavia travelling scholarship to study in Italy with Roman Vlad. After his return from Italy he freelanced and worked at the London School of Contemporary Dance where, with the encouragement of its course-director Pat Hutchinson, he founded a music department.

Finnissy’s concert debut as a solo pianist was at the Galerie Schwartzes Kloster in Freiburg, playing a concert that mainly featured first performances of works by Howard Skempton, Oliver Knussen and himself. He also made his first appearances in Europe, firstly at the Gaudeamus Music Week, the Royan Festival and Donaueschingen. In many of these events he was twinned with Brian Ferneyhough, a friend since his student days and who partnered him whilst teaching composition at Dartington Summer School in the mid-seventies. By then a number of his pieces had been published, soon leading to a contract initially with Universal Edition and subsequently with United Music Publishers and Oxford University Press. Finnissy has served as President of the British section of the ISCM and is now an Honorary Member of the society. He has been attached to CoMA (Contemporary Music for All) since its inception; has been in residence as composer to the Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne, Australia and to the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney and has taught at the Royal Academy of Music, London; Winchester College, the Katholieke Universiteit of Leuven (Belgium) and at the Universities of Sussex and Southampton.

Finnissy’s music has been recorded by a number of record companies including Metier who have done much for this composer’s music. In this, Michael Finnissy’s 70th birthday year, Metier have released a new recording entitled Singular Voices – Music for voice with clarinet and piano featuring soprano Clare Lesser, clarinettist Carl Rosman and pianist David Lesser.

Lord Melbourne for soprano, clarinet and piano was commissioned by the Worfield Charity Concert Trust and was first performed in 1982 at Rudge Hall, Pattingham, Staffordshire, England. It is based on a transcription of an English folk-song by Percy Grainger. Finnissy brings an almost instrumental use of the wordless soprano voice of Clare Lesser, tacking the melody over David Lesser’s piano phrases that pick out the theme together with a longer clarinet line from Carl Rosman. These artists reveal all of Finnissy’s finely conceived colours and intervals as this quite lovely, very individual piece progresses. The clarinet later takes the theme whilst the piano continues to pick out the theme. The soprano returns to lead the music through some very fine textures and harmonies, rising up in some more passionate moments. Later there are further passages for clarinet and piano alone where they weave some fine lines around each other. When the soprano returns she brings an even more flowing line with phrases of varying pitch reaching superb heights before a sudden coda.

To follow there are a number of songs from Songs 1-18 (1966-1978) intended to be performed separately, in groups or as complete cycle. Clare Lesser proves to be particularly fine in Song 1 showing tremendous control and agility in this remarkable setting of Tasso. Finnissy’s vocal shapes and colours bring a rather special atmosphere. Song 16 rises wonderfully on the words ‘I saw on earth angelic qualities…’ Clare Lesser bringing a fine purity of tone, again with remarkably fluent delivery and intensely fine control, achieving a rather otherworldly quality. She brings remarkable singing to the faster passages. Carl Rosman’s clarinet brings equally wide ranging intervals, textures and colours to the opening of Song 11 creating some quite wonderful sounds. Clare Lesser joins, bringing Finnissy’s distinctive vocal style, nevertheless, creating just the right atmosphere for this setting of Swinburne, reaching some extremely high notes at the coda. Lesser soars tremendously high in the opening of Song 14 evoking wonderfully the text of this Whitman poem ‘Skyward in air a sudden muffled sound/The dalliance of the eagles…’ Indeed the fast moving flow of undulating lines makes this a very fine setting. The song, Same As We dates from 1990 and is a setting of Tennyson. It is a really unusual, quite lovely song where this soprano brings some wonderful undulating lines that weave around her own pre-recorded voice creating an innovative way of illuminating Tennyson’s lines. There are some quite powerful passages in this terrific song as well as lovely harmonies. Clare Lesser returns to a song from Songs 1-18 (1966-1978) , Song 15 where she weaves some very fine, fast moving wordless lines interspersed by longer lines. There are some wonderfully controlled quieter moments, finding many lovely textures and colours as she moves around through wide and varied intervals.

The later part of this disc is taken up by Finnissy’s Beuk o’ Newcassel Sangs (1988) which was commissioned by Tapestry and first performed by them at Newcastle University in 1989. They take the texts of traditional Newcastle folk-songs, from A beuk o’Newcassel Sangs collected by Joseph Crawhall (1888).

In the opening of the first song, Up the Raw, maw bonny Finnissy seems to suggest Northumbrian pipes as the clarinet and soprano open. His evocation of folk influences, subtly refracted through his own idiom is extremely effective. Carl Rosman’s microtones find some superb textures and timbres. I thought to marry a parson has a lighter feel yet with a darker subtext, Clare Lesser Carl Rosman and David Lesser weaving some very fine harmonies. Clare Lesser brings a folksy yet wholly distinctive theme in Buy broom buzzems to which the clarinet adds dissonant harmonies. Clare Lesser rises through some remarkably fine passages contrasted by a clarinet line with the piano later adding a discordant texture. A piercing clarinet line soon finds lower tones as it introduces A’ the neet ower an’ ower. Clare Lesser joins to move around the ever changing clarinet part, bringing some spectacularly virtuosic moments to this song with the high piercing texture of the clarinet to conclude. With As me an’ me marra was gannin’ ta wark again a folk style is refracted through Finnissy’s own unique expressive style. As the piano and clarinet notes die away at the end, one can hear Finnissy’s lovely harmonies fading. Piano, clarinet and soprano bring a sparkling There’s Quayside fer sailors , weaving a terrific tapestry of musical lines, creating a very fine texture. In It’s O But Aw Ken Weel the clarinet brings a sorrowful sound to which the soprano adds her own melancholy, both creating a haunting atmosphere, Clare Lesser finding a most lovely coda.

These performances of Finnissy’s quite remarkable songs are unlikely to be bettered. The recording from the Turner-Sims Concert Hall, University of Southampton, Hampshire, England is first rate and there are excellent booklet notes by David Lesser and Clare Lesser. Full texts and, where necessary, English translations are provided.

—Bruce Reader