REVIEWS:  metier msvcd 92027 Finnissy: Verdi Transcriptions


You might call Michael Finnissy a 'post-modern' composer (but in his case 'post' doesn't mean 'Thank God modernism's over'); it's no less relevant that he's a formidable pianist who knows a vast repertory of music. His Verdi Transcriptions are not usually literal: you'll sometimes but not often be able to sing along with Verdi's tunes. They might just as well be termed 'Meditations prompted by Verdi'. In No. 5, for example, rooted in the quintet from Ernani, a sonorous and indeed Verdian cantabile is often accompanied by a complex of other material, at times suggesting what Liszt might have made of that quintet, often how Charles Ives might have treated it; you may fancy that you hear echoes of many other composers. As if all this weren't rich enough, together with it goes an acute understanding and enjoyment of all the things that sheer virtuosity can draw from the piano. My listening notes, which for much newish music tend to be sprinkled with technical terms to be translated into decent English later, here include 'wow!' and 'crumbs!'.

But it's an entirely creative use of virtuosity, even in the feats that Finnissy demands from the pianist in his Fourth Concerto. Several hands and superhuman velocity are the minimum requirement here (towards the end there's a passage that almost out-Nancarrows Nancarrow) but it's the piano's range of colours and textures that is being explored, not the pianist’s ego. Often enough in the Verdi pieces (a majestic 90 minute cycle), Finnissy is matching Verdian imagery with pianistic and fundamentally modern ones: a limpid glitter evokes the Venetian lagoon of I due Foscari but tempests follow, and lightning staccato clusters, and sepulchral rumblings like a Kraken stirring beneath the Adratic. Grace notes in an aria from Giovanna d'Arco prompt poised and ornate lines of Finnissy's own, then denser and even more florid counterpoint. Most striking of all, in the last and longest transcription of 'Tu che la vanità' from Don Carlos, isolated and detached descending notes - sketching emptiness and stasis - seem less derived from, than the essence of, Verdi's melody. What develops may be Finnissy's own 'dramatization' of that opera's plot, and the end - complex overlapping downward scales, each setting off clouds of bass resonance - is both a highly original response to Verdi and a magnificently pianistic sound.

At the other end of Finnissy's range, To and Fro is a delicate and charming sketch, rooted in the blues, while the 13th Transcription presents - in 70 seconds - a Verdian melody intact but with evocative 'scenery' as a sort of miniature Nile Scene. Throughout, Ian Pace's technique astounds, and his enthusiasm for this music is infectious. In his booklet note he calls the Verdi work 'one of the most significant contemporary cycles for piano'. His playing, and a splendidly sonorous recording, make that claim seem an understatement.
Michael Oliver

GRAMOPHONE (on original issue in 2002):
You don't have to decide whether the demands Michael Finnissy makes of his pianist are transcendental or diabolical to be dazzled by Ian Pace's playing on this pair of discs. Even in the Piano Concerto No. 4, which takes the 'bash and crash' cluster style to new heights -or depths - there is plenty of quiet writing where Pace's hands traverse the keyboard with a vertiginous velocity matched by supreme delicacy of touch. And his pearly voicing of the multiple trills with which the sixth concerto ends is further evidence of absolute technical control, a quality fully realised in the magnificently truthful recording by Metier's producer, engineer and editor David Lefeber.

The two concertos, with a pair of shorter pieces, provide the prologue and epilogue to the set's principal offering, the two books of Verdi Transcriptions, 18 pieces in all, and ranging in length from just over one minute to more than 26 minutes. The booklet notes, written by Pace himself, provide details of all the Verdi items involved, although the original tunes, rhythms and harmonies are only very rarely recognisable, and when they are the tension between them and the context Finnissy provides is considerable.

Verdi's music is the starting point for transformation processes which aim to preserve - as Finnissy has put it - 'the energy, passion and wide-rangingly generous humanity' of Verdi's operas. You could certainly argue that in its boldness, emotional intensity and love of display, Finnissy's music is truer to Verdi than any abject imitator of the Verdi style could ever be. On the other hand, pushing things to extremes was not the Verdian way either: yet by the time we get to the long final movement, which only very gradually tears itself away from contemplative restraint to more florid and vehement gestures, you could be persuaded that such visionary intensity is exactly the kind of quality in a creative artist of which Verdi approved, and is as true to our contemporary experience as Verdi's style was to the spirit of 19th century Europe. After all, there is nothing anti-romantic about Finnissy's own style, and the beginning of Book 2 of Verdi Transcriptions is the point where he seems to display the roots of that style - in Skryabin, Szymanowski, even Sorabji - most clearly.

The Verdi Transcriptions were composed between 1972 and 1988 (with revisions in 1995), the two concertos in 1978 and 1980-1, and the original versions of Snowdrift and Two & Fro also belong to the 1970s. There is much more Finnissy piano music to come, much of it more recent, and Pace has it all at his phenomenal fingertips. This must be one of the most ambitious recording projects of our time, and it deserves the widest encouragement and support.
Arnold Whittall

GRAMOPHONE (re-reviewed 2007):
Since Ian Pace recorded this fine set of Michael Finnissy’s Verdi Transcriptions in 2002, the composer has revisited the work and doubled its duration to nearly three hours. Pace’s imposing pianism and extraordinary devotion to the cause were undoubtedly the inspiration, although it’s an unfortunate irony that the very document which inspired Finnissy has now rendered itself obsolete.

However, as obsolete documents go, this is one of the finest around. Finnissy has described being touched by the “energy, passion and wide-ranging generous humanity of Verdi’s operas” and he responds with music that’s heartfelt and approachable, yet densely ambiguous as it dives through benevolently disorienting structural trapdoors. The opening piece in Book 1 deconstructs an aria from Oberto, threading the material through itself like a William Burroughs fold-in and treading a thrilling tightrope between non sequiturs and relentless momentum. The fifth piece is based on a septet from Ernani out of which Finnissy generates a web of opulent decoration and then weaves Verdi’s original line through the gaps. Hardcore clusters jump-cut the music into the sixth piece and after such taut structural control the unfinished nature of book 2 is less satisfying. That said, only Finnissy could transform an aria from Don Carlos into modules that sound like Morton Feldman – but a complete recording? Let’s be having it.

If the Verdis have a lineage that goes back to Busoni and Liszt’s ideals of transcription, then the piano concertos are built on Alkan. Finnissy plays with allusions of pianist as both “soloist” and “orchestra”, creating some of the wildest internal piano dialogues this side of Cecil Taylor.
Philip Clark

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

Once again Metier is doing Michael Finnissy proud. This is the fourth release in its ongoing Finnissy survey, and the second to feature the extraordinary pianism of Ian Pace. And what a feast it is. The Verdi Transcriptions form the vast centrepiece, but are framed by two concertos for solo piano (cf Alkan) and two shorter pieces, Snowdrift and to and Fro. As ever with Finnissy, the range of expression is vast. By turns beautiful and disturbing, and rarely less than thoroughly captivating, he refuses to be pigeonholed, always remaining capable of subverting our sense of order or disorder.

The 18 pieces of the Verdi Transcriptions, ranging from barely more than a minute to a near half-hour fantasia, each draw material from a different opera. In some, such as that based upon the Romanza from Aida, the source material is readily apparent. Elsewhere the original is simply a starting point, while some pieces are his reaction to the mood created by the relevant points in the operas. The result is something thoroughly new, and entirely compelling, especially when given the ardent advocacy of Ian Pace, whose ability to combine thoughtfulness with extreme virtuosity can be heard nowhere better than here. Recommended. ×××××
Christopher Dingle

Ian Pace's double-take-inducing virtuosity is showcased with even greater dazzlement [than previously] on Metier's 2001 double album featuring, among other things, Finnissy's   Verdi Transcriptions . The use of the word ‘transcription' here is interesting; whereas to my mind the word indicates uppermost an attitude of fidelity to an original source, for Finnissy the word carries the implications put forward by Busoni who, writing of the transcriptions by Liszt, noted that while “Notation is itself the transcription of an abstract idea. The intention of writing down an idea necessitates already a choice of time and key. […] Even if much of the idea is original and indestructible and continues to exist this will be pressed down from the moment of decision”, yet “a transcription does not destroy an original; so there can be no question of loss arising from it. […] For the musical work of art exists whole and intact before it has sounded and after the sound is finished. It is, at the same time, in and outside of time.” Indeed, Busoni's attitude to composition – founded on a belief that the boundary between ‘composition' and ‘arrangement' or ‘transcription' was unclear and perhaps indefinable – has clearly informed Finnissy's approach to ‘transcribing' Verdi's music (and ‘arranging' Gershwin for that matter), freely intermingling new music in and around the source material.

The scope exhibited in the   Verdi Transcriptions  (heard here in their mid-1990s version, comprising fifteen movements plus three fragments; this has been subsequently reorganised and slightly expanded) is enormous, as is Finnissy's preparedness to go way beyond an immediately obvious treatment. Just how far beyond is heard to good effect in the first piece (based on an aria from   Oberto ) which spends much of its time engaged in an intense melodic argument in the depths of the instrument, few details emerging to the surface except for some of the bigger gestures. Only as it segues into the second piece (using material from  Un giorno di regno ) does the music rise and begin to assert some clarity, even briefly becoming monodic. Unlike the Gershwin arrangements, though, these are not discrete, individual arguments; just as the  Transcriptions   seamlessly move from one to the next, so Finnissy's musical journey is an over-arching one that straddles across these pieces with all the variety, exuberance and dramatic polarity and cut-and-thrust of an operatic work. Thus, through the fifth and sixth movements Finnissy throws a load of trills into the mix, triggering dense passagework with elements of filigree, becoming angry and violent, spluttering out staccato notes from the top of the keyboard. Verdi is allowed into the foreground in the seventh movement (based on   Ernani ), emerging grandly in the midst of elaborative figurations, but the elegance it subsequently brings is fragmented and shattered. And so the drama continues, passing through white-hot vituperation, more spells of monody, swirling balls of material, overblown campaigns of enthusiasm (the music practically tripping over itself) and some of the most gingerly articulated music, executed by Ian Pace as though he were afraid of touching the keys.

Taken as a whole, what the   Verdi Transcriptions   say about Verdi is perhaps hard to say, though what it says of Finnissy could hardly be more obvious, demonstrating an intimidatingly brilliant and broad range of compositional invention, pushing the word ‘idiomatic' to its pianistic limit. The way in which Pace navigates his way through these pieces and ensures their complexities are intelligible is amazing.

However, two other works on this album are equally outstanding in these respects.   Piano Concerto No. 6  (1981) is wondrous in the way Finnissy almost immediately pulls back following its furious opening, thereafter seemingly constantly slowing down, stretching musical connectivity almost beyond plausibility, climaxing in a splintering of high register trills. But   Piano Concerto No. 4   (1980, rev. 1996) needs to be heard to be believed, Finnissy going beyond all limits of feasibility in a sixteen-minute splurge of eye-wateringly wild virtuosity, crowned with a convoluted canon redolent and worthy of Nancarrow. Ian Pace doesn't so much ‘play' the piece as transform into it.
Simon Cummings