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George FLYNN (b. 1937)
Trinity
CD 1
Kanal (1976) [48:01]
Wound (1968) [26:15]
CD 2
Salvage (1993) [39:29]
Frederik Ullén (piano)
rec. July 2004, Nybrokajen 11 (the former Academy of Music), Stockholm, Sweden
BIS CD1593/94 [74:40 + 39:29]


I had never heard of George Flynn before encountering this remarkable release from BIS. The world of vast piano works is a small one, and just as I was about to compare the scale of this work with some of Sorabji’s Opus clavicembalisticum, it turns out that Geoffrey Madge, who recorded this for BIS, has also championed Flynn’s work in performances of his Derus Simples, just part of over 5 hours of music this composer has written for solo piano. George Flynn is active as an educationalist and concert promoter, having chaired Musicianship and Composition at the DePaul University in Chicago for 25 years, and continuing to direct DePaul’s professional contemporary performance series, "New Music Depaul" as well as Chicago’s "New Music at the Green Mill" series. Flynn is also clearly no slouch at the piano himself, having recorded Trinity himself on the Southport Records label. Unfortunately I do not have this recording to hand for comparison, but I would imagine anyone turned on by Fredrik Ullén’s utterly convincing performance of this incredible work will want to hear the composer’s own version as well.
 
Trinity consists of three individual works. Kanal means “sewer” in Polish, and was inspired by Andrzej Wajda’s film of the same name. Without being literally programmatic, the plot of the work follows a similar course, in which partisans of the 1944 Warsaw uprising are forced into hiding in the sewers, and are eventually annihilated by the Nazis. Wound is a musical reaction to the Vietnam War. It consists of three progressively longer sections of brutal intensity. Salvage, closes the triptych as a structural partner to Kanal, in the composer’s words, “the sonic shape of Trinity is formed by two textural arches, (Kanal and Salvage) surrounding three ‘spikes’ (Wound).” The final piece initially juxtaposes the contrasts of violence and meditative music from the first two works, but becomes increasingly serene, resolving with, again in the composer’s words, “the bells of The Dry Salvages”, a deliberate reference to one of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.
 
This potted summary of course does very little to describe what is going on here. Apart from some sections of Salvage, in which an element of romanticism and tonality is allowed to creep in with a La Lugubre Gondola feel to some of the bass repetitions, open fifths and the like, Trinity is uncompromisingly modernistic in idiom. The piece is staggeringly difficult to play, not only in terms of the technical pianistic demands, but also in the sheer stamina required to complete its 115 minute duration. One of the added bonuses on this release is a the complete score to the work on pdf files on the second disc, and following the notes on the page – if you can – will cause you to doff your cap in the direction of Fredrik Ullén, who never seems to put a foot or a finger wrong. Disc two also contains MP3 files of all three works, ostensibly in case disc two doesn’t play on your computer due to the extra data, but useful and timesaving if, like me, you want to get to grips with some of this music while doing the washing up or watching the snooker on TV.
 
Those of you who know the piano work of Messiaen, combined with the sheer time-span of works by someone like Sorabji might be able to gain an inkling about the kind of music we’re dealing with here, but in the Venn diagram of piano composition these worlds collide rather than really overlapping. The music expresses violence, anguish, fear and despair, but quite how is hard to describe. A musical equivalent of Guernica? Possibly, to the extent that both works communicate the universal imagery and directness of human suffering and struggle in war and against barbarism, while also both referring to real wars and events. Analysis is difficult, and even Kenneth Derus’ excellent essay on Kanal admits that the work has ‘no immediately apparent local structure’ and that the ‘building blocks [of the piece] are functionally ambiguous.’ This is not to say that the work is not well organised, but the complexities go beyond the normal references we normally use to describe musical form.
 
In the end, your struggling reviewer has, like the composer striving to break through a writer’s block who falls back on word-settings, had to resort to literary references when attempting to communicate some of the impressions these pieces create. A free interpretation of Italo Calvino’s ‘Six Memos for the next Millennium’ sprang to mind while I was listening to these pieces, as each heading seems, if not to peel away one of the onion skin layers, then at least to allow a certain amount of purchase, from which the peeling process might be started. 
 
Lightness: While Flynn’s work is anything but light in the sense of ‘light music’, to me it seems to possess the lightness of touch only a real expert at the keyboard can give to his own compositions for piano. The technical demands are great but, as Fredrik Ullén eloquently proves, not insurmountable, and all are in the service of the expressive weight which the composer wishes to communicate – it’s not extravagant pianism for its own sake. Despite all of the doom-laden themes with which this music deals, I cannot help sensing the exuberance the composer feels in being able to create such tracts of inspired musical expression, and as a result there is a way in which these works levitate beyond the earthy bounds of convention and expectation. Like some of the late Sonatas of Schubert, Flynn seems other-worldly, even when dealing with violent and tragic themes, and while maintaining an essential and valuable humanism.           
 
Quickness: For a work of this length, the intensity of each moment is quite remarkable. At a basic level, much of the music is very quick indeed. The sections of a more meditative character are never over-drawn, and even in the extended adieu towards the end of Salvage, have a constantly roaming, searching, restless quality which prevents the music from becoming static or dull.    
 
Exactitude: There are a number of passages which have an improvisatory quality, but looking at the scores one is struck by the detail and clarity with which even the most complicated and dense passages are written. This contributes to the qualities of quickness and lightness previously mentioned. Even if the composer demands a mad roar of noise, that noise claims a function, and Ullén is more than capable of expressing its emotional weight.  
 
Visibility: This may require stretching a point, but for those of us convinced that music always has some kind of programmatic quality in the sense that it can conjure images and sensations according to the associations already existing within the listener – which, admittedly, may not be those of, or even those suggested by the composer – this has to be one of the richest of modern, essentially abstract and atonal piano works in its power to generate such programmatic content.
    
Multiplicity: Calvino never finished this lecture, so I will content myself with the generally accepted view that his intention was to deal with the quality of consistency. Remarkably, for a work completed over a 15 year time-span, each work has a sense of ‘belonging’ to a whole. There are some moments in Salvage when I found myself willing Flynn not to fall into easy romanticism. He never quite does, but if there is a work which fits least then it has to be the most recent one. This is not to deny its qualities and its contribution to the whole, but its character being that little bit ‘softer’ than the other two other works it runs the risk of becoming an ‘odd man out’. This it avoids, but when comparing the sheer granite mass and emotional assault of the other works its romantic centre does give the listener something of a let-off as a conclusion. When seen as a valedictory apotheosis however there are no real artistic problems involved in resolving the work in this way – Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony, but without the big tune.
 
BIS’s recorded sound is stunning for these works, and on any level of performance and production I recommend this release wholeheartedly. The only question remaining is, ‘will I like it?’ This I cannot decide for you. It is most certainly not a work for everyday listening, but neither would you particularly want a life-size reproduction of Guernica on your living room wall. There are sound samples on the BIS website which will give you some idea of what to expect. Taken as a whole, this is one of those works which can have a serious impact on the way you regard music for piano, or the way music functions in general. If, like a few people I know, you think it sounds like a bull bouncing around inside a piano shop and think Mr. Flynn is taking us all for a ride, then I have to respect your opinion and say that this is not for you. I happen to think otherwise, and sincerely believe this piece to be an exceptional achievement, and a powerful contribution to global culture.
 
Dominy Clements           
 

 

 


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