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