This is a remarkable document of a remarkable large-scale piece that, in all likelihood, won’t be performed again. This Church (completed in 2003) celebrates the 900th anniversary of Saint Mary de Haura, a church on England’s Sussex coast. Finnissy’s music is a gorgeous, living reliquary for the constellation of texts forming the libretto, a documentary collage that tells the story of “this church” in all senses of the word – as a building, as a centre of worship, as a political entity and most important, as the embodiment of a community.
That community forms part of the fabric of this performance – the church’s choir and handbell chorus are at the piece’s musical and dramatic core. Finnissy has planted ringers in the choir, but doesn’t try to burnish the amateur roughness out of he ensemble. Good! Their function is to be the voice of the community- they sing hymns, as one might expect, but they also function as a Geek chorus, declaiming and chanting quotidian texts made uncanny – texts that set forth the rules for the church school on its founding long ago, that charge a secretive and parsimonious minister with crimes and misdemeanors in 1721, that describe the operation of a World War I-ear gas mask equipped with a brightly colored cloth “to show our own aircraft that one is British… [and] prevent them from dive-bombing or machine-gunning you.”
The choir constitutes one of several strands of material that Finnissy juxtaposesin this hour-long, four-part work. Another is characterized by narration thatis not done in the slick style of a James Earl Jones, but rather sounds likeparishioners have been called up to do the weekly reading; this is usually accompanied by chamber writing full of overt gimcrackery meant to sound like the common folks’ notion of avant-garde music, an Ivesian conceit. Finnissy’s style owes much to Ives, but has a distinctly British theatrical flavor that calls to mind a folksy retooling of Birtwistle of Davies, if you can imagine such a thing.
Like Golijov’s St Mark Passion , this piece owes everything to the performers it was written for. The professionals sound like professionals, the amateurs sound like amateurs, and they are wonderful together. But it enjoys the additional virtues of a taut structure and some real passion and humanity. We’re lucky indeed they made this recording.