I did not expect Michael Finnissy's folk-inspired piano pieces, subsumed here under the general title "Folklore", to be as beautiful as they are. Based on my previous encounter with his folk-derived piano music - his English Country tunes from 1977, an Etcetera CD (Michael Finnissy: English Country-Tunes) - I thought that, whatever the source material, Finnissy would have elaborated on it in a thorny, angular, pounding, relentless manner, in the manner of "contemporary music".
There is indeed some of that, especially in "Folklore II", by far the longest piece on the disc (nearly half-an-hour). But it is not the substance of that and the other pieces. What strikes me is the ineffable beauty not simply of the modal melodic lines, but even more of the overflowing, appoggiatura-filled ornamentation that enshrines them and lends them fascinating, shimmering watery textures. Among other influences or sources Finnissy mentions here Romanian lullabies, and, maybe not by coincindence, it is the pianistic writing of Enescu (in the solo piano pieces but also in the 3rd Violin and Piano Sonata and the late cycle "Impressions from Childhood") that "Folklore II" brought back to mind, although Finnissy himself claims that this ornamented modal-line is derived from piobaireachd, the traditional Scottish highland bagpiping.
"Folklore II" is the second and longest in a series of four pieces titled "Folklore", running over 70 minutes, that Finnissy composed in 1993 and 1994. The fourteen other pieces featured on this disc are shorter - the longest 8 minute and a half, the shortest 25 seconds - and were composed fom 1955/62 (the four short Polish dances, youthful works obviously inspired by Bartok) to 1996. They are all based on or derived from Folk-tunes of various origins, but like Folklore they are more than just Canteloube-like harmonizations. In some, the original melody is metabolized by the same watery textures as in Folklore (track 3 "My love is like a red red rose", 1990; track 4 "How Dear to me", 1991; track 5 "Willow Willow", 1991; track 13 "Terekkeme", 1981/1990; track 14 "Lylyly Li"). In "Three Dukes went a-riding" (1977/96), track 2, the three Dukes, says Finnissy, are Schoenberg, Berg and Webern - maybe I vaguely hear some Webern in some of the terse, pointillistic melodies. The first Australian Sea Shanty stages a jagged dialogue between right and left hand, both playing a single-lined melody in widely spread apart registers, giving an impression of two simple but independent lines just met there by chance, in a way that brought to mind Nancarrow's rhythmic experiments with the player piano, and to that the second Shanty adds a third voice, almost pointillistic, spacing out the melody between extreme registers in a manner reminiscent of Webern's Variations opus 27. The melodic line can be very simple, one or two voices, but as in baroque art it is the ornamentation, the fioritura that is true essence of the composition. With the exception of the concluding "Svatovac", a teen-age souvenir of romping Russian-like folk dances, in most the mood is very dreamy, playing on soft resonance (and nowhere more than in "Lylyly Li", track 14). The results are often mesmerizing.
Because the instrument is so filled, burdened even, with overbearing traditions, not many contemporary composers have been able to bring something to their piano compositions that really stood out and gave the impression that they were expressing something both new and convincing. I wouldn't be entirely assertive about the "newness" of the compositional processes in Finnissys "Folklore" pieces because, as I mentioned, antecedents can be found in the music of Enescu, Ravel, Debussy and others. Still, I find that the music does expand the expressive gamut of the instrument, in a highly fascinating way.