Concert Review

Philip Thomas (piano) at bmic, 30 March 2000.

Challenging recitals such as this are always refreshing to experience - a sort of intellectual/emotional work-out which can leave the listener exhausted but excited. The programme Thomas chose gave us a chance to hear music by the infrequently-performed composers Cornelius Cardew and Christian Wolff, juxtaposing them with some lesser-known Grieg before moving to the onslaught of the 80-minute 'Folklore' (1993-4) of Michael Finnissy. It is a shame that this innovative and stimulating concert at the British Music Information Centre took place in front of an audience that barely made double figures - the sheer expanse of 'Folklore' alone deserved a larger forum in which to take place.

All of the pieces in the first half dealt with music of national identity in their own ways. Cardew's arrangements of Chinese songs (1973) post-date his rejection of the avant-garde and exemplify the newly-found simplicity of this period of his output. The 'Song and Dance' seemed thoroughly imbued with the spirit of Copland; the delicate simplicity of 'Charge!' was convincingly effective, whilst finally 'Sailing the seas depends upon the helmsman' provided an engaging pianistic romp. Wolff's 'Bread and Roses' (1976) pitted an effective use of silence with folksong fragments, disturbing in their recontextualisation and dislodged harmonic functionality.

Sandwiched between them were three excerpts from Grieg's 'Slatter', Op. 72. Thomas, in his introduction, pointed out that this Grieg sounds 'more like Bartók' - true enough (although there is a quasi-Oriental passage in 'Rotnamsknut from Hallingdal'), but he allowed himself to be carried away by the more percussive moments, resulting in uncomfortably clangourous climaxes.

Finnissy's 'Folklore' is as ambitious in its musical scope as it is in its duration. It brings to mind works of Stockhausen that attempt to bring 'World Music' under one canvas - 'Hymnen' or 'Telemusik', for example. Over 'Folklore's 80-minute plus span, Finnissy evokes almost Impressionist swathes of sound and pits them against simple, extended monodic lines and manic, virtuoso outbursts. He also, in a sort of hyper-musical egalitarianism, takes complex musical references to different cultures and superimposes them on one another, whilst finding space to refer to such composers as Ives, Scriabin and Bussotti. One could not but admire Thomas' stamina in his rendition, although at times I missed the sheer visceral excitement that Ian Pace can bring to this music (see my review of Pace's performance of Finnissy's Fourth Piano Concerto at The Warehouse, Waterloo, October 28 1999). However, I wonder when will be the next opportunity to hear this repertoire - and I count myself lucky to have been amongst the handful that experienced it.

Colin Clarke


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