Finnissy’s omnipresent engagement with existing musical materials, often manifested in his music to varying degrees of convolution and obfuscation, could hardly be more overwhelmingly obvious in Metier’s 2013 CD featuring two works for piano quintet.
The first is Finnissy’s own completion of ‘EG 118’, a fragment by Edvard Grieg of what was intended to be a piano quintet, a mere 250 bars sketched in the early 1890s. Stylistically speaking, of course, this isn’t going to appeal to all fans of contemporary music, but it is a remarkably large-scale testament not merely to an empathetic response to Grieg’s material but to a wholesale assimilation by Finnissy of Grieg’s entire soundworld and musical thinking. Caveat: personally speaking, despite growing up listening to a fair amount of Grieg’s music, i’m no expert and therefore can’t say from a scholarly perspective to what extent Finnissy has remained entirely faithful to Grieg’s intentions. But regardless of that, one can hear the pleasure—the sheer fun, in fact—that Finnissy has had in taking Grieg’s ideas and putting them through an intensive 27-minute, single-movement workout (Finnissy calls it a ‘kammersymphonie’) that, superficially at least, never strays far enough away from the Norwegian’s path to sound as though anything untoward is taking place. Put simply, it convinces. Overall, the structural integrity of the piece does feel somewhat strained in its latter stages, but it’s an outstanding achievement all the same.
This piece is paired on the disc with Grieg-Quintettsatz, a work where Finnissy lets himself off the leash imposed by the completion to write something more free based on the same fragment. It’s a distinctly uncanny experience, at times entirely ensconced within the world of late romanticism, yet from the halfway point Finnissy wildly swings the piece away from this, plunging deeper and deeper into more contemporary territory. What follows is about as easy to describe as it must have been difficult to achieve, a spontaneous, slip-sliding dialogue between these very different modes of musical expression, one that gradually finds and forges unexpected links between them (a lot changes in 100 years, but not everything), an aural reconciliation that causes one’s initial, palpable, disorientation to be entirely dispelled. The performances, given by the Kreutzer Quartet and pianist Roderick Chadwick, are splendid in the way they reinforce the contrasts and connections both between these old and new soundworlds as well as the two works on the disc, which as a whole comes across as a stimulating mixture of traditional familiarity and disarming oddity.