This is a great addition to the catalogue. Metier is a company that fearlessly explores music of unapologetic modernism that demands a hearing, and this disc is no exception. The music of Michael Finnissy, while challenging, has an immediacy of impact that draws the listener in.
The first piece we hear is based on Grainger’s Lord Melbourne, although the actual theme is well hidden. The three performers (soprano, clarinet and piano, this last always heard in its highest register) operate largely independently. In her commentary on these works, Clare Lesser refers to this work’s “organum-like quality”, and it is easy to hear the timelessness of it; she also refers to its “Zen-like quality”. The recording is perfect, clear and with realistic distancing, while the performances themselves are mesmeric. Lesser herself seems to have superhuman breath control. Moments when voice and clarinet nearly but not quite meet seem to flag up the equivalence between the two “instruments”. There is a pronounced vocal element to the non-sung instruments, as well as an instrumental (melismatic) element to the voice, a kind of exchange that works beautifully. In fact, the timbral interactions comprise a great part of the joys of the works that make up this disc, as well as in Lord Melbourne specifically.
The Songs are heard here in the order Nos. 1, 16, 11, 14 and 15, with Same as we inserted between the last two. The actual cycle was composed between 1966 and 1978 and comprises some 18 songs in total. All of them chosen to be heard here apart from No. 11 are for solo voice (No. 11 includes a part for clarinet). Finnissy opts for texts by Tasso, Petrarch, Swinburne and Whitman; Same as we is to a text by Tennyson. Song 16, to a text by Petrarch, is given with the utmost purity: Lesser’s judgement of intervals is perfect. Song 11 sets a segment of Swinburne’s On the Cliffs and is prefaced by an extended clarinet prologue. Swinburne’s imagery is beautifully evocative (“Between the moon-down and the sun-down Here the twilight hangs half starless … Fiercely the gaunt woods to the grim soil cling”). The performance here is miraculous in its presence and in its all-encompassing concentration. For Song 14, Finnissy opts for a part of Whitman’s The Dalliance of the Eagles. The ultra-high opening note for the word “Skyward” issues forth from Lesser with preternatural ease, while the melodic line itself swoops like the eagles it describes. Song 15 is wordless, its long lines flying easily.
For Same as we, Lesser’s voice is multi-tracked to form a touching melancholy, pastoral duet. The text is by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (from The Promise of May). Finnissy plays with our expectations of closure, giving the impression the piece could end at any of several junctures.
Finally, the Beuk o’ Newcassel Songs. Finnissy takes nineteenth century sources. The piano has the simplest part and explores diatonicism; the soprano also sticks to diatonicism but in a more complex format, while the C clarinet has the most active, and passionate, writing. The poetry is earthy and real (the depiction of abuse of a wife in the second poem is both moving and disturbing), and Finnissy brings to the texts an almost palpable sense of folk writing. The world of the Berio Folksongs is not far away, particularly, perhaps, in the urgency of the overlapping lines of the fifth song, “As me an’ me marra was gannin’ to wark”. The sheer loneliness of the voice/clarinet interactions and exchanges (no piano in this one) of the final song, “It’s O but aw ken weel” make for a most thought-provoking end to a superb release.
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