Sunday 26 June 2016

Inner Landscapes - chamber music by Douglas Finch

Inner Landscapes - Douglas Finch
Douglas Finch Inner Landscapes, piano & chamber music; Aleksander Szram (piano), Lisa Nelsen (flute), Mieko Kanno (violin), Toby Tramaseur (violin), Caroline Szram (cello); Prima Facie
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 22 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Intense and thoughtful, the interior world of Douglas Finch revealed in music spanning 30 years

This disc, Inner Landscapes, on the Prima Facie label, is a survey of the chamber music and piano music of Douglas Finch, covering some 30 years of his composing career from 1984 to 2013. The pianist Aleksander Szram plays Finch's Lyric, Chorale I, II & II, and Uclulet (Landscape IV) and is joined by Lisa Nelsen (flute), Mieko Kanno (violin),  Toby Tramaseur (violin), Caroline Szram (cello) for Ruins, Fantasy on a Russian Folksong, Summer and Lamentations.

Finch was born in Canada and trained initially at the University of Western Ontario and the Juilliard. He moved to the UK in 1993 when he co-founded the Continuum Ensemble with Philip Headlam. From 1999 to 2006 Finch was Head of Keyboard at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, where he is now Professor of Piano and Composition.

The music on the disc is arranged roughly chronologically from Ruins (1984) to Chorale III (2013), but what strikes the listener is not so much the changes to Finch's style as the way he keeps returning to the same themes. In his introductory note the composer says 'On reflection, it appears to me that I have been moving in circles, rather than in any kind of straight line of 'progress'. For one thing, I keep returning to the sonorities of the piano. The overtones and natural decay - the slow deaths of struck, vibrating strings - seem to be in accord with my predilection for themes of solitude, mourning and spiritual longing.'

Much of the music is quiet and intense, and the disc's title Inner Landscapes is very apt.

The disc opens with Ruins from 1984, a suite of five short pieces written for flute (Lisa Nelsen), violin (Mieko Kanno) and piano (Aleksander Szram). The title refers both to the name Schumann intended to give to his Fantasy in C minor, as well as actual ruins (the last movement was inspired by Drachenfels Castle, near Cologne). The first movement is eerie and though lyrical there is a sense of stasis despite the marking Gently Flowing, the music continues dark and menacing in the second movement and even the third movement, a rather sidelong glance at a march, has violent outbursts in the piano. This sense of disturbed quiet is one which re-occurs in the music. The fourth movement is spare and intense, whilst the last is evocative. Finch's writing is often lyrical and can be tonal, but there are interesting edges to the harmonies and he is not afraid of being strikingly spiky.

Lyric, a work for piano from 1984, was inspired by lines from Rilke's Improvised Verses. It is austere and spare, an examination of harmony and texture rather than melody, and again moments of violence interrupt the calm, though there are also some lovely delicate textures.

Fantasy on a Russian Folksong from 1989, is written for violin (Toby Tramaseur), cello (Caroline Szram) and piano (Aleksander Szram), and is based on the Russian folksong 'My Sweetheart', though in his note the composer comments that it was also inspired by the coastal landscape in North Wales. It starts with delicate wisps of texture, and again the sense of texture and harmony is prevalent and as these develop there are moments of vibrancy, finally becoming fast and violent.

Summer for cello (Caroline Szram) and piano (Aleksander Szram) dates from 1993 and was also inspired by North wales (and the Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym), which perhaps explains the work's rather low key atmosphere, with soulful cello phrases being set against a shimmering piano texture.

Chorale I (from 2003) for piano was inspired by Franck's Three Chorales for Organ; planned as one of three, the composition of the second and third was interrupted and Finch places the three separately on the disc). The piece consists of slow chords, with Finch really examining the sound delay from the piano, but there is also an interesting edge to the harmony, so the work is not completely comfortable.

Landscape III (from 1998) for violin (Mieko Kanno) and piano (Aleksander Szram) is dark and concentrated, with moments of violence. By now, it is becoming clear that Finch has a very striking ear for nuance and gesture in his writing, and the detail of the music rewards attention being paid.

Uculuet (Landscape IV) from 2000 and the title refers to a place on the west coast of Vancouver Island which is referred to by the painter Emily Carr. It is a quiet and thoughtful piece, rather evocative with single notes carefully placed in the aural landscape. For a while, the musical material becomes more insistent but then just evaporates.

Chorale II was written in 2013 some time after Chorale I (Finch lost the original manuscript sketches and then when he found them, found his ideas had changed). Again it is rather spare, with carefully placed chords in a landscape. The harmony brings a sharp edge to the sense of interior thoughts.

Lamentations  (written in 2001 and revised in 2007) is for alto flute (Lisa Nelsen), violin (Mieko Kanno) and piano (Aleksander Skram). The piece reflects Finch's personal reactions to 9/11, much if it is quiet and intense with a threnody-like feel and some harshness in the harmony, leading to a really violent section in the middle.

The final work on the disc is the third of the Chorale pieces, also written in 2013, again it is quiet and rather sombre.

The performances from pianist Aleksander Szram and his instrumentalist friends are all exemplary, with no sense of exploration or uncertainty. All bring to life Finch's distinctively thoughtful sound-world, with its use of nuance and gesture to give a real feeling of an introspective world.

Douglas Finch - Ruins (1984)
Douglas Finch -Lyric (1984)
Douglas Finch -Fantasy on a Russian Folksong (1989)
Douglas Finch - Summer (1993)
Douglas Finch - Chorale 1 (2003)
Douglas Finch - Landscape III (1998)
Douglas Finch - Ucluelet (Landscape IV) (2000)
Douglas Finch - Chorale II (2013)
Douglas Finch - Lamentations (2001/2007)
Douglas Finch - Chorale III (2013)
Aleksander Szram (piano)
Lisa Nelsen (flute)
Mieko Kanno (violin),
Toby Tramaseur (violin)
Caroline Szram (cello)
Recorded at Blackheath Concert Halls 31 July 2014 to 2 August 2014
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