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Michael FINNISSY (b. 1946)
Gershwin Arrangements (1975/1987-8) [49’27]: How long has this been going on? [3’30]; Things are looking up [3’11]; A foggy day in London town [3’11]; Love is here to stay [4’35]; They can’t take that away from me [4’26]; Shall we dance? [2’51]; They’re writing songs of love, but not for me [3’55]; Fidgety Feet [2’00]; Embraceable you [5’24]; Waiting for the sun to come out [4’35]; Innocent ingénue baby [4’35]; Blah, blah, b;ah [2’33]; Boy wanted [4’51]. More Gershwin (1989-90) [30’21]: Limehouse nights [3’27]; Wait a bit, Susie [2’51]; I’d rather Charleston [3’28]; Isn’t it wonderful! [2’08]; Nobody but you [1’58]; Swanee [4’25]; Dixie Rose [1’07]; Someone believes in you [3’35]; Nashville Nightingale [7’22].
Nicolas Hodges (piano).
Rec. December 6th-7th, 1999, June 20th-21st, 2000 at St George’s, Bristol. DDD


We should be grateful to companies such as Metronome and Metier for their continued devotion to contemporary music in the UK.

Michael Finnissy is a fascinating figure. Most recently I encountered a world premiere – Medea at the Semley Music Festival ( ). Here Finnissy is attempting to personalise Gershwin, to recontextualise the familiar by moving the original to opposites of mood and tempo. As Finnissy himself says, ‘surprisingly these major changes of character can issue from very slight alterations to harmony and rhythm, the simpler architecture of the songs has usually been left unchanged’. In the event, some songs are changed more than others.

Within each of the two sets here, there are various groupings of songs to form subsets. Hence the first seven songs of Gershwin Arrangements carry a dedication to John Flinders; the first four of More Gershwin are dedicated to Joanna MacGregor.

In the case of the first dedication, the songs referred to ‘document a love affair – from tentative, if hopeful, beginnings to mournful ending’. An interesting idea, made more interesting musically possibly by Finnissy’ s recourse to dictation. He took down ‘Things are looking up’ from Fred Astaire’s recording, for example. Perhaps the final song of the initial batch of seven is a tad self-indulgent (but who isn’t at the end of an affair?). Here, in ‘They’re writing love songs, but not for me’ (from Judy Garland’s recording, for her almost suicidal take on the musical text), Finnissy derives his accompaniment from Liszt’s La lugubre gondola I. Actually, this song sums up Finnissy’s take on this music. It is as if one is looking at the Gershwin original as spatially-removed object, and one is just catching it out of the corner of the eye. Sometimes one might look straight at the object, in which case it comes into focus. More often, though, it is there, omnipresent yet shrouded in another, related, foreground.

Hodges seems to have complete understanding of the score. The first song, ‘How long has this been going on’ begins as a single line and blossoms forth. Jazz emerges from the seeds of monody, Hodges enjoying every second (great staccato). He seems as happy in the sleepy second movement, or the innocuous musings of the third.

‘They can’t take that away from me’ is one of the more famous songs, and here it is instantly recognisable, heard as if in a sleazy, smoky back-room; and all the better for it!

The remainder of the songs disappoint somewhat. Perhaps I was expecting something to happen, and it just didn’t, but after a while they do start to merge into one another.

As Finnissy says, ‘The piano writing in this cycle [i.e. More Gershwin] is rather more exuberantly virtuosic and outgoing than in Arrangements’. ‘Re-voicings’ and ‘contrapuntal elaborations’ are much more the order of the day - a relief to Finnissy followers, possibly less so to Gershwinites. ‘Textures are more transparent and the colours brighter’, says Finnissy.

It is all true. Here is a real sense of deconstruction in ‘Isn’t it wonderful’, real playfulness in ‘Dixie Rose’, real warmth to the harmonies of, ‘Someone believes in you’.

All in all this is a superbly recorded and played disc that reveals just how searching the mind of Michael Finnissy really is. Metronome state that this is Finnissy paying homage to the song transcriptions of Godowsky and others. Finnissy does so, in his own inimitable style. Recommended.

Colin Clarke

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