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Michael FINNISSY (b.1946)
This Church

Richard Jackson, baritone, Jane Money, mezzo-soprano
Choir of Saint Mary de Haura Church
The Saint Mary Handbell Ringers
Rec. Church of St. Mary de Haura, Shoreham, Sussex, February 2003
METIER MSV CD92069 [65.30]

One of the biggest challenges for any composer is to compose for a combination of professionals and amateurs, especially for the latter. With the former you are largely free to express whatever you like in the knowledge that it can be done. With the latter you have to be aware of many constraints. What will be the rehearsal time. How many can read music? For voices the melodic lines should ideally link with accompaniment and other voices so that each entry is not too difficult to achieve. For instrumentalists rhythms should be not overly complex. Yet one’s own voice, one’s own integrity, must shine through. The composer must express what he or she wants. These constraints can bring the best out of some composers as it seemed to for Britten. Other composers are unable compromise. Where does Michael Finnissy fall?

The present work was written to celebrate the 900th Anniversary of the church of Saint Mary de Haura in New Shoreham, Sussex. If you are familiar with the town you will know that it has two ancient and wonderful churches. There is St. Nicholas Old Shoreham which has much Saxon work and St.Mary’s founded by William de Braose, an associate of William 1st, in the main town centre. This is a superb example of very early Gothic architecture. The history of this coastal town, goes back into the depths of British Christianity. This is represented in Finnissy’s music.

This Church is scored for two (professional) singers. The first is a mezzo-soprano who sings the interposed German chorales. There is also a baritone soloist who sings, largely unaccompanied monody. The sung texts concern the history and writings about the church. There are two narrators. The organ is used as is the parish choir of seventeen members who sing mostly in unison. There is a group of extremely well drilled and competent hand bell ringers and the ensemble Ixion with Finnissy himself at the piano. Ixion are familiar with his music and have recorded several of his works before. The present work last over an hour and is divided into four tableaux. Incidentally the timings of each section given on the box are completely wrong. It is quite extraordinary that such an uncomplicated detail should be so inaccurate.

The beginning of the work is impressive. The soprano’s eastern type ornamental chant of the Latin hymn ‘O clarissima Mater’ over a choir drone and a series of tambourine shakes is memorable. No-one can really know what Anglo-Saxon music was like but for a moment one is easily transported back to a thousand year old world until you remember a facet of Finnissy’s biography. He was brought up with Polish friends and a refugee from Hungary. He became interested in Eastern European culture and transcribed tapes of Macedonian folk music. He has been inspired by the music of Hungary and of the Rumanian gypsies. These sounds have been a powerful part of his music since his twenties. Consequently his language has become quite personal and original. It might take some grasping at first, but with careful and unbiased listening, it can be heard as beautiful and intricate. It is this sound-world that one enters at the start of the piece.

This is an eclectic work and part 1 is a good demonstration of it. I’ve already mentioned the opening. There follows a baritone solo which relates factual detail concerning the origins of the church. (The texts for all of the work are quite diverse and their sources are carefully indexed at the back of the booklet).The baritone is accompanied by a drone from an accordion and there are choir interjections in Latin. A flute enters with a quarter-tone melody and is joined by the baritone. The organ enters gently in a style more akin to J.S. Bach. This austere counterpoint presages a German chorale, a text used by Bach. A string quartet joins in the counterpoint and then sopranos of the choir. Bach is very close although some of the harmonies are not quite ‘kosher’. The baritone then picks up a text about the ‘desecration of the church during the reign of Edward VI’. He is mostly accompanied by the occasional ejaculation, one may say, from a racket.

Part 2 begins with typical wailing counterpoint in piano, accordion and other wind. One hears similar sounds in other Finnissy works such as Red Earth (NMC 0405). This music accompanies spoken texts about Shoreham in the 17th Century. And so it continues. I hope you get the idea. The texts take us right into our own times. The piece ends with a poem by George Herbert - most haunting. There is much here which is stylistically disparate yet it somehow keeps its integrity and ‘hangs together’, although I did occasionally get fed up with the acres of spoken text at the beginning of Part 3.

I do not have any reservations about the performance or the recording. Richard Jackson does sterling work especially in the quite long recitations. Jane Money has a strong yet ethereal voice. The choir are crisp, in tune and very well rehearsed but perhaps they need a more forward placement in the overall sound picture.

Full texts are given and there is an essay by Michael Finnissy but it’s rather short and mainly concerns itself with structure. On the other hand perhaps composers are too often accused of prolixity.

To sum up then: a fascinating piece and one which highlights an unusual facet of this, one of the most original and prolific composers of our time.

Gary Higginson


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