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Michael FINNISSY (b.1946)
Civilisation (2004/13) [19:59]
Contrapunctus XIX (2013) [6:26]
Clarinetten-Liederkreis (2016) [14:46]
Mad Men in the Sand (2013) [2:05]
Six Sexy minuets three trios (2003) [24:58]
Linda Merrick (clarinet), Kreutzer Quartet
rec. 2017, St. Michael’s Church, Highgate, London
MÉTIER MSV28581 [68:21]

Despite its rather eccentric title, Mad Men in the Sand is great place to begin exploration of this CD. It was composed for string quartet in 2013.This two-minute work was inspired by a short manuscript fragment of a quartet penned by Charles Alkan and found in the British library, that composer’s piano prelude ‘Le chanson de la folle au bord de la mer’ which evoked ‘a mad woman singing on the seashore’ and a gay pornographic film Boys in the Sand released in 1971. I hope that I will be forgiven for junking Finnissy’s entire ‘programme’ and just enjoying this agreeable (and very short) ‘scherzo’ as a movement of modern string quartet music. It is written in a largely approachable musical language and has allusions to similar works by Charles Ives and Felix Mendelssohn. Finally, the work is subtitled ‘En rhythme molossique’ which reflects the second Étude by Alkan. ‘A mollusus’ is a difficult-to-define ‘metrical foot’ often used in Greek and Latin poetry.

Civilisation for string quartet is, according to the liner notes, a railing against imperialism. What ‘civilisation’ ‘is’ is the question behind the progress of this work. Whether this is relative or absolute is not clear. For example, does it require reading and writing to be worthy of this accolade. It may be that primitive societies are/were more civilised than we are today. On the other hand, the German vision of the word does tend to be prominent in the musical allusions to Haydn, Beethoven and even Wagner, which would seem to imply that ‘colto’ (cultured) is more vital than ‘primitivo.’ There are ‘pastoral’ elements to this ‘quartet’ as well as something more barbaric. So, does Finnissy means us to interpret this work as a journey? Perhaps there is no absolute definition of ‘civilisation.’ Certainly, it does not mean Coca Cola and MacDonalds. Maybe the mark is whether listeners enjoy this quartet, born out of the musical genre of new complexity. I must get a high rating as I found it a particularly beautiful and absorbing piece of music!! Hmm.

I have always enjoyed JSBs The Art of the Fugue BWV 1080, often played on harpsichord, organ, piano, string quartet and even full orchestra. This masterwork has 14 fugues (contrapuncti), 4 canons and a pair of mirror fugues. There is also an unfinished quadruple fugue. Completions of this final number have been made by Donald Tovey and Ferrucio Busoni, amongst others. Now, I am not sure why Finnissy has decided that Bach’s ‘Contrapunctus XIX’ needed to be ‘continued’, but there it is. He opens with the third fugal subject and begins to ‘develop’it: I admit it works well, although I felt that Bach begins to lose out to Finnissy as the piece progresses. All this aside, it is a splendid bit of four-part counterpoint which will keep the listener absorbed from the first bar to the last. The work was ‘continued’ in 2013.

The composer also had ‘sex on the brain’ with his Six Sexy Minuets and three trios. This is the longest work on this CD running to nearly 25 minutes. As the title implies, there are nine movements. I found this piece hard to get my head round. Not so much the redundant title, or the innovative string quartet sound, but the use of kitchen utensils as part of the instrumental texture. These include “teacups, a leather covered notebook, chopsticks, metal espresso cups, and a thick miniature score of The Marriage of Figaro”. Musical as I am, there is rarely sheet music in the kitchen! The batting order for this work does not indicate what is a ‘minuet’ (M) and what a ‘trio’ (T). The liner notes suggest it is as follows: ‘MMTMMTMTM’. But I guess it is not important. The final movement ‘andante malinconico’ is, as the liner notes suggest, ‘miraculous.’ Finnissy seems to gather up the entire history of quartet ‘slow movements’ and creates an eight-minute exposition of “the richest grief of our shared humanity”. Finally, I do not understand the composer’s gratuitous use of ‘Sexy’ in the title. I am certainly no prude, but it does seem to be totally irrelevant to the progress of this quartet.

The five-movement Clarinetten-Liederkreis (2016) was written with ‘funds’ from the Ida Carroll Trust. Peter Sheppard Skærved suggests that this light-hearted conversation piece is in fact a “‘divertimento/serenade’ in form and mood”. There is nothing difficult about this quintet. The title ‘Liederkreis’ is meant to invoke Schumann’s op.39 with the implication that this will conform to the pattern of a soloist accompanied by the string quartet. It does not always work out that way. Dance patterns such as waltz, and minuet are introduced. Elements of Eastern European folk music are heard in the third movement, whilst the fourth is a ‘march’ that nods to Bartok. The finale opens quietly and builds up to a crescendo with each player seemingly doing their own thing. Not quite such a blithe divertimento after all…

The cerebral liner notes are written by Peter Sheppard Skærved, who gives a good introduction to these varied compositions. The only issue that no-one has chosen to give the dates of these works. I would have thought this was a basic element in any programme note. Clearly, I was able to find this information on the internet, but that is not the point.

The playing by the Kreutzer Quartet is splendid throughout. Linda Merrick brings her undeniable magic to the Liederkreis.

In my review (March 2016, MWI) of Michael Finnissy’s Singular Voices (MSV 28557) I observed that “Michael Finnissy is an acquired taste that I am in the process of acquiring”. Alas, since that time, I have heard little of his music until this present CD. My overarching opinion of his music then was that it was intricacy presented in simplicity, despite the ‘new complexity’ label. Once again, I find that this CD presents music that covers a wide-range of emotion and musicality. Whatever one’s response to these works, the listener will feel that they are most definitely in the presence of a ‘Singular Voice.’

John France



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