Gramophone (On Original Issue In 2002)

This two CD set of Michael Finnissy’s piano music played by Ian Pace documents the composer’s extraordinary slant on tradition. In a sense everything Finnissy does is a comment on one tradition or another, but the conceptual clarity behind the Verdi Transcriptions makes the work particularly approachable. When he began it in 1972, he envisaged four separate books of music, but by 1986 he had only finished the first book, and nine years later he combined the remaining material into a second. The work was premiered in that form by Ian Pace in 1995 during his season of Finnissy concerts at the Conway Hall. But why Verdi?

Finnissy describes being touched by “the energy, passion and wide-ranging generous humanity of Verdi’s operas”, and his transcriptions transform those qualities into a powerful personal statement. Some pieces kick Verdi’s foundations away altogether and reassemble them again through the prism of Ives’s piano music, or the compositional splicing and jumpcutting that Finnissy has borrowed from film. Others graft his embellishments on top of Verdi’s original. The nine sections that make up Book One, meanwhile, are cunningly contrived to form a massive 40 minute structure.

Starting in the dark bowels of the piano, an aria from Oberto is restructured so it can have an acrid and spiky two-part conversation with itself. The fifth section (based on a septet from Ernani) represents a contrasting apex of brightness and joy. Verdi’s original line pokes through scintillating decoration of building complexity and Pace’s pianistic achievement in keeping both strands active is quite remarkable. The piece splinters in section six into angrily deconstructed clusters and the effect is shattering. After the impact of Book One, the looser structure of Book Two makes it feel less convincing but the individual pieces are no less impressive. This work ends with a colossal half-hour re-composition of an aria from Don Carlo that begins in a decidedly Feldman-like manner before the calm is punctured by rude interruptions that imperceptibly build into frenetic avalanches of descending notes.
In his piano concertos Finnissy adopted ideas from the late 19h century French composer Charles Alkan – the finnissy of his day who wrote music of tremendous harmonic and structural complexity, and created the illusion of the pianist being both soloist and orchestra in his Concerto For Solo Piano. Finnissy’s Concerto No. 6 (1980 – 81) starts with a bang, but is a rather clandestine piece that spins obsessively in the lower register of the instrument and suddenly shoots to high end trills for its conclusion. Pace has described Concerto No. 4 as the wildest piano piece ever written. Imagine your favourite Cecil Taylor solo transcribed and then repeated with the conviction and heat of he source performance. This piece relentlessly reinvents the instrument as an orchestra controlled by a single pair of hands, something for which Ian Pace is superbly equipped.

—Philip Clark