Since Ian Pace recorded this fine set of Michael Finnissy’s Verdi Transcriptions in 2002, the composer has revisited the work and doubled its duration to nearly three hours. Pace’s imposing pianism and extraordinary devotion to the cause were undoubtedly the inspiration, although it’s an unfortunate irony that the very document which inspired Finnissy has now rendered itself obsolete.
However, as obsolete documents go, this is one of the finest around. Finnissy has described being touched by the “energy, passion and wide-ranging generous humanity of Verdi’s operas” and he responds with music that’s heartfelt and approachable, yet densely ambiguous as it dives through benevolently disorienting structural trapdoors. The opening piece in Book 1 deconstructs an aria from Oberto, threading the material through itself like a William Burroughs fold-in and treading a thrilling tightrope between non sequiturs and relentless momentum. The fifth piece is based on a septet from Ernani out of which Finnissy generates a web of opulent decoration and then weaves Verdi’s original line through the gaps. Hardcore clusters jump-cut the music into the sixth piece and after such taut structural control the unfinished nature of book 2 is less satisfying. That said, only Finnissy could transform an aria from Don Carlos into modules that sound like Morton Feldman – but a complete recording? Let’s be having it.
If the Verdis have a lineage that goes back to Busoni and Liszt’s ideals of transcription, then the piano concertos are built on Alkan. Finnissy plays with allusions of pianist as both “soloist” and “orchestra”, creating some of the wildest internal piano dialogues this side of Cecil Taylor.