Finnissy’s never-ending preoccupation with exploring existing music comes emphatically to the fore in [this Metier release]. George Gershwin takes centre stage in a disc, released in 2000, featuring two major engagements with his work, Gershwin Arrangements(1988) and More Gershwin (1990). These two sets comprise short reworkings of Gershwin’s songs, often clearly retaining their original verse-chorus structure.
Finnissy’s renderings often come across as kaleidoscopic, as though the songs were being viewed through varying forms of prism. It’s a startling effect, because at no point does the musical material sound remotely unclear: indeed, this is arguably some of Finnissy’s most transparent, crystalline music. What makes this startling is the way all this limpid clarity can at the same time be revealed as not actually focused, existing at something of a tangent to Gershwin. The very first piece, How long has this been going on?, is a superb example of this, absorbed from the outset in a rigorous exploration of the song’s elements until, two-thirds through, Finnissy suddenly makes the original resolve from nowhere, leaving one re-appraising what was happening in the two minutes that went before: how long, indeed, has this been going on? The effect is especially pronounced if one’s knowledge of the Gershwin songs in some cases is somewhat tenuous (as mine is, despite my life-long love of listening to Sinatra): pieces seem to be spiralling around a collection of rhythmic motifs or harmonic sequences with an improvisatory élan only then to coalesce into something instantly familiar. These are magical moments.
Due both to their inspiration and conciseness, as well as Finnissy’s treatment, these are hugely accessible pieces. Many wouldn’t sound terribly out of place in a jazz club, channeling as they do a vibe that, as i’ve suggested, veers between avant-garde exploration and translucent immediacy. Things are looking up takes a mischievous approach, spritely and fun, for the most part prancing care-free around Gershwin before occasionally coming in closer, teasing us with it; Innocent ingénue baby behaves similarly, though here with a sense of moving inward, as though metaphorically turning Gershwin’s material over in the pianist’s hands, examining it. A foggy day in London town is a masterclass of the art of arranging, seemingly travelling a long, long way from Gershwin yet never once losing the sense that each and every note, phrase, chord has come directly from the original. The subject matter of the songs clearly matters greatly to Finnissy: take one of the longest arrangements, Love is here to stay, an initially subdued, somewhat distant piece that ever so slowly becomes more focused and demonstrative, ultimately becoming a huge, underlined assertion of the title. One of Finnissy’s most gorgeous arrangements. The second set, More Gershwin, pushes further in terms of both musical ambition and emotional scope. Wait a bit, Susie is the most prismatic piece of them all, barely clinging to clarity in the regularity of its rhythms, whereas the nearly eight-minute Nashville Nightingale, which concludes the set, embarks on a large-scale quest that progresses from a tentative feeling its way forward to an overwhelming, oppressive, even harsh fortissimo conclusion that threatens to flatten both Gershwin and us with the ferocity of its final tremolando. But the most far-reaching power comes from two more restrained numbers. Isn’t it wonderful! seemingly ignores its title entirely, rendered into curiously austere counterpoint, beautiful but ultimately deeply unsettling. Swanee is another example of kaleidoscope, its clarity shot through with events from strange angles; second time round it’s even more oblique, only then to enter into one of the most astounding (and unpredictable) moments of Finnissy’s entire output: a long, drawn-out coda (marked ‘desolato’) almost entirely drained of colour, stained by tears. Ian Pace’s articulation of this ending is utterly spellbinding, clarifying the music’s aching paradox of prettiness and pain.