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Michael FINNISSY (b.1946)
Pious Anthems and Voluntaries
Glen Dempsey (organ); James Anderson-Besant (organ)
Sarah O’Flynn (flute); Cecily Ward (violin)
The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge/Andrew Nethsingha
rec. St John’s College Chapel, Cambridge, 14-18 July 2019. DDD.
Texts and translations included.
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from
SIGNUM SIGCD624 [83:56]

There are certain words which philologists call ‘object words’: you have to show the thing in order to define it. It’s no use calling a cat ‘a feline quadruped’ if you don’t know what a cat is. I can try to describe this recording, but it won’t help if you don’t know where Michael Finnissy was coming from when he composed this music during a long period of residency at St John’s College, Cambridge. The lengthy and detailed commentary in the booklet is very helpful, again if you have already heard the music, but not otherwise. For those who would like to read it before committing themselves, the booklet is available free to all comers from Hyperion, where the album can be downloaded in 16- and 24-bit sound. It’s also available from Naxos Music Library, where subscribers can stream the music – and decide what it’s like. Perhaps it would help if I say that the figure on the cover, with part of the left side in harmony with the right and part slightly disconnected, struck me as an apt symbol for the music, with the music of the past and Michael Finnissy’s response to it sometimes hamonious here and sometimes (very much) at odds.

A starting point might be the concept of the organ voluntary. If you listen to BBC Radio 3’s regular Wednesday and Sunday afternoon broadcasts of Choral Evensong, you will know that the organist usually plays out the programme with an improvisation on a theme, which may be based on a well-known tune, often by an earlier musician. Many composers in the renaissance took a tune, sometimes a sacred tune, but more often a secular song, and used it as the basis or cantus firmus of a setting of the Mass.

Or you may recall the scene in the film Amadeus where Mozart is challenged to play a piece of music in the style of another composer – one of the few aspects of the film that has some claim to be true. Michael Finnissy has done that on a grander scale, taking the wide-ranging repertoire of St John’s College choir and composing his own distinctive response to five works in that repertoire. This is music of the past – it even has an old-fashioned sounding title – realised in a modern context. Don’t be put off by the title, there’s nothing ‘pious’ here in the sense of stuck-up or holier-than-thou.

The programme begins with the Easter Day respond Dum transisset sabbatum, a respond for Mattins commemorating the visit of the three Maries to what turns out to be an empty tomb. John Taverner’s settings have become among the best-known pieces by an early Tudor composer, with many recordings to their credit. In turn, a section from one of Taverner’s Mass settings became the model for an instrumental composition known as an In Nomine, a practice apparently initiated by Christopher Tye, whose Complete Consort Music has been recorded by Phantasm (Linn CKD571). That Phantasm collection, in addition to severa lIn Nomine settings, also includes one on the plainsong theme of Dum transisset sabbatum, so there is long-standing precedent for what Finnissy has done. (Incidentally, I must apologise for having failed to review the Linn recording, about which I have far fewer reservations than my colleague Dominy Clements – review).

The one work that isn’t based on a choral original occurs on track 12, the commentary on BWV562, Fantasia and Fugue in c minor. It’s also the most adventurous – those who dislike the avant-garde should stay clear.

If you have got so far through my explanation, you will want to know if I liked what I heard. The answer is that I did, but that I got more out of it academically and intellectually than emotionally. The Bach cantata, as it is heard here, is very touching at times, but at other times I found myself harking back to a time as an undergraduate struggling with the intricacies of Vergilian word-order in the Æneid, or reading the lengthy notes in the Klaeber edition of Beowulf. Or trying in my MA dissertation to fathom the significance of the music in Spenser’s Bower of Bliss; things that I ‘enjoyed’ on a very different level from sitting back and enjoying a piece of music or literature for itself.

I think that Johann Sebastian might have approved of what Finnissy has done with his cantata. After all, he was not above playing intellectual and mathematical games in his music, but in his work as Thomaskantor, he was adapting a well-established musical tradition to the needs of the people of his day in Leipzig. One of his best-known themes, which he set to the words O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden in the St Matthew Passion, but also in a very different context in the Christmas Oratorio and as a counterpoint in Cantata No.161, has a lengthy pre-history in Lutheran music, apparently first appearing as a secular love song c.1600 and adapted as a hymn a few years later.

Would he have approved of what Finnissy has done with BW562, arranging it for organ, flute and violin? I think that’s a more open question – it certainly goes well beyond the sort of closing voluntary played at Evensong, even, I assume, at St John’s. Finnissy’s notes mention, almost in passing, that the nine sections of this recording have an affinity with Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maître. I had best leave unwritten what I think of that work or of Pli selon pli, other than to say that I struggle to think of either as music. Somewhere between Olivier Messiaen, whose music I revere, and his erstwhile pupil Boulez a great gulf is fixed for me.

I’m very much in favour of music by modern composers with a sense of the past, and frequently say so. Francis Pott, for example, strikes me as such a composer – try his recent release At First Light (Naxos 8.573976 – review) and his earlier The Cloud of Unknowing (Signum SIGCD105: Recording of the Month – review). Such, too, is Ian Venables, whose Requiem, recently recorded by Somm, has received high praise from myself and my colleagues. (SOMMCD0618 – review review).

If you are looking for a more amenable recording which specifically references the music of the past and present, there’s a good example on the Coro label, on which The Sixteen supplement their splendid recordings of music from the early-sixteenth-century Eton Choirbook, works by Sheppard, Wylkynson and Fayrfax, with music by Tavener (the modern composer, without an extra r), Whitacre, Jackson and MacMillan (An Enduring Voice, COR16170: music ‘well chosen to blend’ – Spring 2019/1). On the basis of this recording, Michael Finnissy doesn’t tick as many boxes for me, but the Signum album is intriguing enough to make me look out for future releases of his music.

Simultaneously with the Finnissy, Signum have released Eric Whitacre’s The Sacred Veil (SIGCD630). I’m listening to that as I conclude this review, downloaded, like the Finnissy, in 24-bit sound from Hyperion; I suspect, from a first hearing and from other music by this composer, to be listening to that more often than the Finnissy.

The composer’s notes refer to music ‘with guts and brains’; it’s certainly often gutsy and largely intellectually fulfilling, and I can’t imagine that St John’s Choir and Andrew Netsingha could be excelled – after all, they have lived through the music’s gestation. Most of all, the burden falls on the able hands and feet of organist Glen Dempsey who, with second organist James Anderson-Besant, brings the programme to a powerful close in Plebs angelica. The recording, heard in 24/96 quality, is very good; even in that hi-def format, at £12, it won’t break the bank, with mp3 or 16-bit at £7.99. The CDs cost around £12.75, effectively two for the price of one.

I found the whole experience admirable rather than enjoyable, but I should add that I note that other reviewers have been much more enthusiastic, an Editor's Choice and a 5-star, so, as so often, I recommend sampling for yourself. Naxos Music Library have it, with booklet. If you feel as upset by some of the music as I did, I suspect that’s part of the composer’s intention.

Brian Wilson

Dum transisset Sabbatum [8:07]
Dum transisset Sabbatum – double (organ) [7:49]
Videte miraculum [8:25]
Videte miraculum – double (organ) [9:19]

Commentary on ‘Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern’ (organ, flute and violin) [4:00]
Cantata: ‘Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn’ [19:14]
Commentary on BWV562 (organ, flute and violin) [5:32]
Plebs angelica [7:59]
Plebs angelicaalternativo (organ duo) [13:30]



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