Finnissy has a refreshingly inauthentic approach to traditional sources, redefining their harmonic and rhythmic qualities in his often virtuoso pianism. The latter, more measured paragraphs of Folklore II have a strangely haunting intensity. Newcomers should try one of the shorter items that follow: transcriptions in the freest sense.
BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE:
A programme of subtle and absorbing sounds. Despite the occasional clustery outburst, Michael Finnissy's piano style envelops bristlingly ornamented, irregular melodic lines in a haze of sustaining pedal, thereby transforming folkish melodies into evocative vistas of colour.
BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE CRITICS CHOICE 1998:
This is a sublime and vigorously enthralling disc of folk-inspired works from one of the most important living composers. The half-hour FolkloreII (1993-4) is an unequivocal masterpiece which deserves a place in every collection. The accompanying miniatures span Finnissy's output, some dating from his early teenage years and demonstrating a precocious maturity. Finnissy's accounts raise questions for other performers, but the beauty of the playing and the music are never in doubt.
THE SUNDAY TIMES:
This is the first of several Finnissy discs planned by Metier and a fair taster of his sound-world and aesthetic outlook. The main item is the second of four "chapters" of an 80-minute piano cycle, Folklore (1994), in which folk sources from all over the world are surveyed, brooded on, and transformed into Finnissy's own free-floating, endlessly decorative, often eruptive style. This second chapter is dedicated to Tippett and makes use of the spiritual, Deep River, with which he movingly ended his oratorio A Child of Our Time. It is just as hauntingly invoked here, in a languid two-part counterpoint. The music tends to alternate between passages of dauntingly complex polyphony - though, as realised with Finnissy's amazing precision, these always sound purposeful and clear - and sustained, inflected monodies based on pibroch (Scottish bagpiping) such as bring the chapter to its rapt close. Fourteen other folk-derived piano pieces follow, including the beautiful setting of My Love is Like a Red Red Rose (1990), a couple of Australian Sea Shanties (1983), and the four, lively, Bartok-influenced Polish Dances, Op. 32, begun when Finnissy was nine.
"One of the persistent threads running through Finnissy's output has been a fascination with popular music and folk song. Folklore, a massive solo-piano work in four "chapters", is Finnissy's exploration of how that interest has been assimilated into his style. The second part is half-an-hour long, with fragments of folk material from around the globe embedded in highly figured keyboard writing. It's elusive music, and the other folk-based pieces are useful primers for the greater sophistication and subtlety of the larger works.
Michael Finnissy is reckoned to be at the grittier end of the avantgarde, his music highly complex - hence the term "new Complexity" which journalists reach for, also covering the work of James Dillon and Brian Ferneyhough. But it should be emphasised that much of "Folklore" is very gentle music.
The longest piece by far is the 30-minute Folklore II. But like most of the pieces here, the basic ideas is surprisingly simple. As with the idealised folk-music from which it takes its inspiration, there is essentially just one melodic line, ith satellite commentaries. The "harmony" is really just coloration of the melody, and the music is repleat with trills and other filigree. Complexity is most obvious in the rhythm, where Finnissy reacts against what he regards as the four-square classical tradition.
Most of the pieces have a folk basis - transcription of folk-material is very important to Finnissy. There are three traditional love songs - English, Scottish and Irish - including most famously My Love is Like a Red Red Rose, and two Australian Sea Shanties. Don't expect Percy Grainger-style arrangements, but striking essays nonetheless in a unique tonal language... Often euphonious music - an ideal introduction to one of Britain's most important avant-gardists.
Metier has released four albums of the piano works, which doesn't sound like a lot but they nonetheless constitute over ten hours of music, including some of Finnissy's most important works for the instrument. Released over a period of fifteen years, these releases successively grow in terms of both scope and duration. All but one of them are performed by arguably the composer's most definitive interpreter, pianist Ian Pace.
The earliest album, from 1998, is Folklore , features the composer himself at the piano, in an anthology of eleven works all of which either derive from or are at their heart rooted in folk song. Finnissy's attraction to folk idioms is due to a variety of aspects, including its being a melodic line without harmonisation, its role as a “private utterance” (Finnissy notes how “some folk singers would not divulge certain songs to collectors because they were too precious”) and the fact that they were not composed or financial reward. The geographical range of folk music drawn on in this collection of works is considerable, spanning Romania, China, Poland, Azerbaijan, Afro-America, Australia, Macedonia and Britain. A great deal of human history and culture is thereby encompassed in these pieces.
The source materials aren't merely served up as quotations, but make themselves manifest in the music in two important respects. Their appearance at surface level is clearly the product of assimilation and consideration, Finnissy handling them with the freedom that comes both from genuine affection and a deep understanding of how, what and why they are. Beyond this, they colour the music in a more generalised way, lending various stylistic and idiomatic traits, harmonic, rhythmic, motivic. An especially striking example of this are the four gone-in-an-instant Polskie Tance (Polish Dances) that originate from 1955, when Finnissy was just nine years old.
Each miniature is something of a study, a kind of thumbnail sketch of a dialect, the first of which (with obvious debt to Bartók) is a deliriously boisterous twenty-five second romp that, both despite and due to its brevity, is an astonishingly precocious compositional achievement, one that testifies to the importance of the piano at a very early stage in the composer's musical life. In the other works on the disc, composed from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s, the incorporation of folk elements into Finnissy's broader compositional language is less stylistically mannered, more subtle and nuanced. A consistent approach involves making a melody the epicentre (both figurative and literal) of an intense exercise in embellishment and ornament.
A touchingly simple rendition can be heard in My love is like a red red rose (composed for Finnissy's partner), tiny sparks softly firing out from the melody at its core; one hesitates to use this word for Finnissy, but there's something almost coy about the soft sensuality displayed here, each phrase almost blushing at it sounds. Sibling piece How dear to me goes even further, its barely adorned melody tapping into an intense intimacy that practically makes us blush as we listen. With a little more momentum this becomes the soundworld of Lylyly li , intricately weaving two tremulous, filigree lines around each other so closely that they each appear to want to occupy precisely the same space.
But it's the half-hour title work that literally and musically goes furthest at exploring line – although, having said that, it seems fair to say that Finnissy often keeps the piece relatively confined. In its entirety, Folklore comprises four parts that together last a little over two hours; to date, only the second has been recorded. It draws on a wide range of sources – including piobaireachd (Scottish bagpiping), Cornelius Cardew, the spiritual Deep River ( Folklore 2 is dedicated to Michael Tippett), a Sussex folk-song as well as two withdrawn piano works of Finnissy's own: one titled Haen (also related to bagpiping) and an earlier version of Folklore 3 . Overall, the piece has a kind of ‘default position' to which it regularly returns: long episodes of monody often elaborated and/or ornamented by varying quantities of trill. For all the ostensible simplicity of this, while many of these passages are harmonically focused and stable, Finnissy at times uncannily causes the material to tilt and sag such that everything suddenly becomes unsure, here and there exacerbated with violent explosions that remarkably retain their ornamental quality, making a trill feel something like a pneumatic drill. Around these episodes are contrasting bursts of variegated counterpoint, heavy and brooding, loud and pointed, assertive and exploratory, though perhaps the most striking comes around two-thirds of the way through, the piano seemingly growing reticent, receding away in the middle distance, as though mulling over the music entirely to itself. It establishes a pensivity that remains for the rest of the piece, all the while ascending into the stratosphere. A truly engrossing composition.
In a note appended to the score of Folklore, Finnissy describes his country of birth as "insular and conservative, institutionalized, despiritualized, tawdry and corrupt". Beneath contempt, in other words. Yet he continues to live and work in England despite attractive offers from the USA, the Netherlands and elsewhere. This deep ambivalence is apparent in his music. Not only does he make little or no attempt to reconcile differences, more often he seems determined to accentuate them. Modal melodies from the folk tradition drift over billowing chords that are dense, harmonically ambiguous and often profoundly unsettling. Elemental or atavistic violence seems always to be lurking somewhere in the background. Finnissy reinvests folk tunes with the musical equivalent of a complex psychology; his transcriptions countervail against the cosy, sanitised, skipping-round-the-maypole version of rural life in bygone days that organisations such as English Heritage promote.
The 'Polish Dances' on 'Folklore' date from 1955; Finnissy was only eight years old, but he'd been composing for half as many years. His transcriptions, even then, were bristling with implications. If, as he has said, his response to music was primarily sensuous rather than intellectual, it was nonetheless critical - the melodies were addressed and caressed and, in the process, transformed. This process is also discernible in the tiny 'Svatovac' (1973-74), both sets of Australian Sea Shanties (1983), 'Lylyly Li' (1988-89), and in more Romantically-inclined 'autobiographical' pieces such as 'My love is like a red red rose' (1990).
The major work on this disc is 'Folklore II' (1993-94), which Finnissy has described as "an investigation of different modes of presence" and "a distant memory, an assemblage, a critical elaboration, an opposition of conjunctions, an open-ended investigation, a palimpsest, a self-portrait." Somewhat more insouciantly, he said, "I stole the tunes and messed them around a bit." 'Old songs deranged' as Charles Ives put it. But this kind of messing around owes something - political and social as well as musical - to Cornelius Cardew and Christian Wolff, too. Finnissy acknowledges them both; also Michael Tippett, whose use of the Afro-American spiritual 'Deep River' in the oratorio, A Child of Our Time, inspired Finnissy to weave several meditations and improvisations around this melody. Considerably less violent than his magnum opus for piano, English Country-Tunes, Folklore is a free-floating, irresolute and luxuriant piece, thoughtful rather than daydreamy, which on subsequent hearings seems to offer different perspectives on the material.