In 1910, composer and musical visionary Ferruccio Busoni wrote, ‘Every notation is, in itself, the transcription of an abstract idea. The instant the pen seizes it, the idea loses its original form… The idea becomes a sonata or a concerto; this is already an arrangement of the original…. The performance of the work is also a transcription, and this too, however free, can never do away with the original.’ The idea that all composition is a transcription came as a revelation to Michael Finnissy, who had been preoccupied with the latter from the beginning of his career. Two large sets for piano, Verdi Transcriptions and Gershwin Arrangements/More Gershwin, were begun in the 70s, and increasingly Finnissy’s output became less abstract, more concerned with existing musical material.
Busoni was concerned to defend improvisation and the freedom of the interpreter. Finnissy’s own attitude to improvisation, at least as evidenced by these often disturbing deconstructions of George Gershwin’s songs in piano arrangements, is more ambivalent. Finnissy’s response to Gershwin is quite divorced from his use of jazz musicians; he treats the songs almost as musical ‘found objects’. There’s no connection with chord-based jazz improvisation; insofar as there’s a repeating chorus structure, it’s the melodies which are constant. In fact, you’d be pressed to find much connection at all with Gorgeous George the Jazz Age icon. Finnissy began improvisation on the songs for recital encores, but his critical cultural agenda was there from the start; ‘They developed as part of an evolving discourse on popular culture, the British fear of elitism, the potency of cheap music… legitimised rough trade and kitsch.’
Pianist Ian Pace is a longtime Finnissy associate, and offers a vital conception of his soundworld, with the gamut of emotional expression that the transcriptions demand. In the first book, Finnissy focuses on the classic songs from the later 20s and 30s such as ‘Love is Here To Stay’, ‘A Foggy Day’, ‘Embraceable You’, and ‘How Long Has This Been Going On?’. The second set of arrangements, More Gershwin, are songs from the early 20s with titles such as ‘Limehouse Nights’, ‘Swanee’ and ‘Dixie Rose’. On the face of it the earlier songs are even less likely material for the attentions of the heavyweight British modernist and sometime accomplice in New Complexity. But the two books of transcriptions compel the listener’s attention in very different ways: the first more troubling, uneasy, rarely conventionally beautiful; the second mostly lighter and more improvisatory, some of Finnissy’s most delicate music.
The recording is interesting acoustically, its gauzy but rather boxy presence imitating early piano recordings. The instrument is a Fazioli, the handmade piano, instead of the usual Steinway; it has a softer sound, more consistent across all registers, which the intimate approach called for. Ian Pace proves to be a heroic interpreter of Finnissy’s Gershwin transcriptions – a tough, sometimes baffling listen, but an extraordinary achievement.