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.
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.