Friday 12 August 2016

WAM - music for clarinet by Michael Finnissy

Michael Finnissy, Michael Norsworthy - WAM
Michael Finnissy Clarinet Sonata, L'Union Libre, Mike, Brian, Marilyn and the Cats, WAM, Giant Abstract Samba; Michael Norsworthy, Michael Finnissy, William Fedkenheuer, New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble, Charles Peltz; New Focus Recordings
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 29 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Intriguing and absorbing music for clarinet by Michael Finnissy, a reflection of a 20 year friendship and a continuous dialogue with musical culture

This disc, on New Focus Recordings, of music for clarinet by Michael Finnissy performed by clarinettist Michael Norsworthy includes three piece specifically written for Norsworthy. Michael Norsworthy (clarinets and percussion) and Michael Finnissy (piano and percussion) perform Finnissy's Clarinet Sonata, L'Union Libre and Mike, Brian, Marilyn and the Cats and are joined by violinist William Fedkenheuer for WAM. Finally Norsworthy is joined by the New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble, conductor Charles Peltz for Giant Abstract Samba.

The Clarinet Sonata is one of four sonatas that Finnissy wrote in 2006/2007, each taking a different historical model. For the Clarinet Sonata Finnissy used Beethoven's Piano Sonata Op.110. The right-hand line of Beethoven's sonata appears bar for bar in the piano part of Finnissy's sonata, but each bar is reversed, occasionally with edits and substitutions. Finnissy's own note on the piece refers to the clarinet surfing across the top of the piano part. The sonata is in one movement but its different sections reflect the markings of Beethoven's sonata.

The clarinet part is lyrically expressionist but with some jagged edges, and it intertwines with the piano to create a rather absorbing, almost dialectical, discourse. On first listening the differentiation between the different sections was not always obvious, but the latter part of the piece is rather intense leading to a quiet ending.

L'Union Libre was first performed in Moscow in 1997. The title come from Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality. The clarinet and the accompaniment are effectively independent, Finnissy describes the piece as a 'kit' comprising solo part and a set of independent accompaniments; the accompaniments comprise both piano and percussion. The result is rather a complex texture as the busy and rather decorative piano part weaves round the more lyrical clarinet. The advent of the drum is rather a surprise.

Finnissy's programme note does not explain who Mike, Brian, Marilyn and the Cats are, he simply says that the piece was a group portrait written in 2004. Again there is a controlled element of randomness in the work, as the order of the pages of the piano part are not specified (except for the first page), whilst the timings of the appearances of Mike's cats (pre-recorded meowing) is precise. The result is complex and characterful, and the addition of the meowing of the cats makes the whole completely delightful.

WAM stands for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the figure behind the piece. Finnissy, in his note, talks of how 'it is possible to take Mozart's music, and do something else with it, to explore the pitch patterns and rhythmic patterns differently and take them on different adventures'. The piece is written for piano and two, unspecified obbligato instruments (here Norsworthy's clarinet and William Fedkenheuer's violin). The two obbligato instruments move about, sometimes off-stage sometimes one, whilst the piano part starts loud and fast and gradually retreats to slow and quiet.

The opening has the hugely dramatic and busy piano almost drowning the lyrical clarinet and violin. There is a gradual sense of the clarinet and violin coming forward, and more of a sense of dialogue with the piano develops, though you feel that the piano only has half an ear on them and prefers to go its own way. Then as the obbligato instruments advance, the piano retreats in the aura picture leaving the two instruments almost as solo.

Giant Abstract Samba is a large scale piece for clarinet and wind ensemble, here Michael Norsworthy and the New England Conservatory of Music Wind Ensemble, conducted by Charles Peltz, and the same performers gave the work's premiere in Boston in 2002. The work is in two parts, the first section being a samba and the second a gently drifting, pulse-less meditation. The samba is a fabulous up-tempo ensemble piece with the clarinet just one amongst equals. The musical material here makes reference to the Gavotte in C minor, Op.23 by Camille Saint-Saens. Then with the move into the more thoughtful second section the clarinet comes to the fore and there is a sense of slow unwinding.

In his booklet note Michael Finnissy talks about how all the pieces deal, at a conceptual level, with the complex business of 'Musical Culture' and all should perhaps carry a question mark to complete their titles. Each piece is in dialogue with a cultural artefact, and one of the absorbing things about the music is trying to perceive the fragments of the original left in Finnissy's work. But above that there is a highly absorbing sense of discourse, partly this is with the past, but overall it is a discourse between the performers and between them and the listener.

The sonata, Mike, Brian, Marilyn and the Cats and Giant Abstract Samba were all written for Michael Norsworthy, and to a certain extent the disc is a reflection on Norsworthy's almost 20 year friendship with the composer. The performances from Michael Norsworthy, Michael Finnissy and the other performers impressively absorbing in their own way. I found this a fascinating and highly intriguing disc.

Michael Finnissy (born 1946) - Clarinet Sonata (2006/7) [18.54]
Michael Finnissy - L'Union Libre (1997) [11.07]
Michael Finnissy - Marilyn, Brian, Mike and the Cats (2004) [6.11]
Michael Finnissy - WAM (1990-91) [13.23]
Michael Finnissy - Giant Abstract Samba (2002) [13.36]
Michael Norsworthy (clarinets and percussion)
Michael Finnissy (piano and percussion)
William Fedkenheuer (violin)
New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble
Charles Pelz (conductor)
Recorded University of Southampton, 2011; Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, November 2002 and June 2006
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