Gershwin Arrangements, reviews


Gershwin Arrangements
More Gershwin

Metier Sound & Vision 2000, MSV CD92030

“This is one of those recordings which tests one’s willingness to accede to the composer’s world-view. All too often, such projects fail to convince, which is a fairly cheap (and rather dull) triumph for the listener. Occasionally, the listener is won over from the start, which is, well, nice. However, perhaps the most interesting – and least predictable – variation is exemplified here, where one almost wills the composer and his interpreter to fail, yet one is eventually attracted to what seemed at the outset to be a perverse, even negative, viewpoint, realizing that in fact the exercise is not only valid but musically stimulating.

The motivation behind Finnissy’s arrangements of Gershwin is complex and intellectually sophisticated, being shot through with the cultural implication of so called popular music (which, being in reality populist music, is of course nothing of the sort) and, as the composer himself puts it in the booklet notes ‘… the British fear of elitism, the potency of cheap music, Forsters Scudder rescuing us from inherent moral turpitude, the annexing of inverted snobbery by aesthetics, legitimized rough trade and kitsch.’ Well, plenty there to be getting on with, I suppose, although it’s not entirely clear, either from the text or the music, as to where Finnissy himself stands in relation to this multifacted conundrum. This may or may not be deliberate.

This is Gershwin as a half-remembered, ambivalent musical force in a culture in which artistic heritage is mutable and volatile, bent to the will of succeeding generations, interpolated, reinterpreted, augmented, abstracted, reassessed and reconstructed. The pieces themselves are like otherworldly inversions of their originals, or works which have garbled memories of their earlier lives. Where Gershwin places jollity, Finnissy inserts tentative uncertainty; where Gershwin places resolution, Finnissy allows flux; where Gershwin proposes a placid acceptance of life’s woes, Finnissy returns us to the contradictions inherent in doing so. Pace is clearly so conversant with this music as to be a constituent part of it, while the deliberately dated piano sound and recording style is perfectly suited to this strange yet compelling music. This disc is unique and remarkable.”

“This disc deserves a place on the shelves of every serious collector. These two cycles of Gershwin arrangements contain some of Finnissy’s best and most thought-provoking music played by one of his greatest advocates. Most of Finnissy’s output contains pre-existing music, but those who only known works such as English Country-Tunes or Folklore may be surprised at how identifiable Gershwin’s melodies are. Conversely, those who know little or nothing of Finnissy’s music may be disconcerted initially by how far these pieces seem to stray at times from Gershwin. For the latter, it is worth remembering that Gershwin’s songs have been treated as malleable material from the start of their existence. Most people think they know how ‘Summertime’ should go, but relatively few are thinking of the operatic original. Indeed, some of the more dissonant and daring arrangements for piano were in improvisations by Gershwin himself. Finnissy joins a long line of transcribers including, of course, figures from both trad and progressive jazz, as well as composers such as Grainger and Earl Wild. The emotions in Finnissy’s arrangements are often as complex as the music is intricate, at one moment poignant, disturbing at the next, but always utterly compelling.Strongly recommended.”

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“It was time for the late twentieth century to respond to Gershwin with some new arrangements of his songs. Not jazz, where the whole thing gets lost, but a more classical approach. Such arrangements could either be authentic, in period style, or else radical. Anything in between – like some characterless rearrangements heard in the BBC Proms in London a few years ago – is a waste of time. As an arranger Finnissy is radical – as we should know from his own music. So the stage is set on this CD for something special with pianist Ian Pace, a dedicated exponent of Finnissy who performed the complete piano works to mark his fiftieth birthday in 1996. Everything on this CD was premiered by Finnissy himself – the Gershwin Arrangements in 1988 and More Gershwin in 1990. The two sets are available from Oxford University Press.

As an indication of the general style one might say that this is how Charles Ives would have arranged Gershwin if he’d still been composing when Gershwin wrote his songs. As in Ives the melody is there but the decoration qualifies it in a fascinating way. With Finnissy you can practically always hear the tunes, which are indestructible. Not all of these are familiar and some which Finnissy has selected are difficult, if not impossible, to find in print. Why on earth is there still no Collected Gershwin Songs easily available?

Let’s jump in at the deep end by listening to I’d rather Charleston from Lady be good). It opens with wild flourishes; then you can pick out the melody of the verse; and, after more flourishes, the chorus follows with much of the 1920s spirit (transmuted) of the original.

Finnissy is usually more meditative than that. Here’s the first one in the collection – How long has this been going on? (cut from Funny Face but relocated to Rosalie in 1926). Here Finnissy ingeniously mixes up the instrumental introduction to the verse, the verse itself and the chorus in a kind of stream-of-consciousness idiom that’s brushed past Scriabin.

Another Gershwin classic is A foggy day in London town from the 1937 film A Damsel in distress. At the start Finnissy helps himself to the chime chords of the introduction, then picks up the right-hand parallel chords for the verse, but he constantly modifies the harmony with substitions and additions. This is what happens next in the chorus. There’s the familiar till-ready and then the tune but the harmonic backing is unpredictable, out of focus.

Amongst Gershwin’s lesser-known songs is the title song from the 1937 film Shall we dance. Although still recognizable this tune gets one of the rougher treatments, elbowed into seven-beats-in-a-bar, and larded with chords that might have come out of Messiaen. But the succeeding They’re writing songs of love, but not for me is melancholy and poetic.

The only song Finnissy uses which is also contained in Gershwin’s published set of 18 of his own transcriptions (1932) is his early 1919 hit Swanee, one of the group of nine here called More Gershwin. The verse comes first; then one rather straightforward (for Finnissy) run-through of the chorus; another verse; another chorus, more subdued; and finally, avoiding anything obvious, a magical rapt coda. You’d think the piece had finished at 2’44” but it goes on to become one of the longest at 4’23”. But it’s the chorus of Swanee that everyone knows best and Finnissy’s version gives a final indication of his personal angle on one of the greatest melodists of the last century. Everything is beautifully played too.”

“In 1910, composer and musical visionary Ferruccio Busoni wrote, ‘Every notation is, in itself, the transcription of an abstract idea. The instant the pen seizes it, the idea loses its original form… The idea becomes a sonata or a concerto; this is already an arrangement of the original…. The performance of the work is also a transcription, and this too, however free, can never do away with the original.’ The idea that all composition is a transcription came as a revelation to Michael Finnissy, who had been preoccupied with the latter from the beginning of his career. Two large sets for piano, Verdi Transcriptions and Gershwin Arrangements/More Gershwin, were begun in the 70s, and increasingly Finniss’s output became less abstract, more concerned with existing musical material.

Busoni was concerned to defend improvisation and the freedom of the interpreter. Finnissy’s own attitude to improvisation, at least as evidenced by these often disturbing deconstructions of George Gershwin’s songs in piano arrangements, is more ambivalent. Finnissy’s response to Gershwin is quite divorced from his use of jazz musicians; he treats the songs almost as musical ‘found objects’. There’s no connection with chord-based jazz improvisation; insofar as there’s a repeating chorus structure, it’s the melodies which are constant. In fact, you’d be pressed to find much connection at all with Gorgeous George the Jazz Age icon. Finnissy began improvisation on the songs for recital encores, but his critical cultural agenda was there from the start; ‘They developed as part of an evolving discourse on popular culture, the British fear of elitism, the potency of cheap music… legitimised rough trade and kitsch.’

Pianist Ian Pace is a longtime Finnissy associate, and offers a vital conception of his soundworld, with the gamut of emotional expression that the transcriptions demand. In the first book, Finnissy focuses on the classic songs from the later 20s and 30s such as ‘Love is Here To Stay’, ‘A Foggy Day’, ‘Embraceable You’, and ‘How Long Has This Been Going On?’. The second set of arrangements, More Gershwin, are songs from the early 20s with titles such as ‘Limehouse Nights’, ‘Swanee’ and ‘Dixie Rose’. On the face of it the earlier songs are even less likely material for the attentions of the heavyweight British modernist and sometime accomplice in New Complexity. But the two books of transcriptions compel the listener’s attention in very different ways: the first more troubling, uneasy, rarely conventionally beautiful; the second mostly lighter and more improvisatory, some of Finnissy’s most delicate music.

The recording is interesting acoustically, its gauzy but rather boxy presence imitating early piano recordings. The instrument is a Fazioli, the handmade piano, instead of the usual Steinway; it has a softer sound, more consistent across all registers, which the intimate approach called for. Ian Pace proves to be a heroic interpreter of Finnissy’s Gershwin transcriptions – a tough, sometimes baffling listen, but an extraordinary achievement.”

“THE Finnissy whose black complexity and virtuoso demands make the more abstruse works of Liszt seem facile is not obvious here, though the figurative manner in which he ruminates on Gershwin songs is florid enough and not without its moments of rampaging. Beginning as improvised recital encores, these arrangements have developed into books respectively of 13 and 9 songs, with ‘Love is Here to Stay’, most touchingly transcribed, in this case acting as a bridge. No song that Gershwin himself rendered for piano is chosen by Finnissy; and since there turns out to be an unlikely congruence between the composers’ mentalities, these versions are useful concert items at the very least. But they have other dimensions, musical and sociological, as Pace’s booklet essay explains. Using a Fazioli piano to re-create an “old-fashioned” sound, he plays them thoughtfully and beautifully.”

“Born in south London in 1946, Michael Finnissy has become one of Britain’s most prominent and prolific composers. A piano virtuoso himself, a quarter of his 300 or so works are written for this instrument, including no less than 7 piano concertos. Metier are to be congratulated for championing his music in a rapidly expanding discography, and particularly the piano music either performed by the composer or as here by Ian Pace who has become especially associated with it. In 1996, in honour of the composer’s 50th birthday, Ian Pace gave a six concert series of Finnissy’s complete piano oeuvre directly inspiring Finnissy to begin a five and a half hour piano cycle, History of Photography in Sound, to be premiered by Pace this summer.

These two cycles are part of a large segment of Finnissy’s work which he describes as transcription. But make no mistake, these are no mere arrangements. As in Finnissy’s other major piano works of this type (for example the Verdi transcriptions) the initiating musical idea is completely transcended, a mere launch-pad for the composer’s fertile imagination.

Finnissy first heard Gershwin songs on his parent’s radio, and these arrangements arise from early happy experiences, transmogrified by improvisation, at first as recital encores. And what glorious music they make. By turns virtuosic and contemplative, they are given an incandescent performance by Ian Pace. The song tunes drift hazily in and out of the music. Layers of melody, voluptuous harmony, and intellectually challenging counterpoint entrap the listener into a wholly original and exciting sound world, nevertheless remarkably approachable for a late 20th century composition.The piano recording is delectable. This wonderful disc has already become a firm favourite in my catalogue. Finnissy is a national treasure; lets have lots more, please.”

“Michael Finnissy presents a darker version of the great popular songwriter and composer than Herbie Hancock’s recent tribute. In fact, his response to Gershwin is seemingly quite divorced from the use made of him by the jazz tradition. Finnissy began improvising on the songs for recital encores: ‘They developed as part of an evolving discourse on popular culture, the British fear of elitism, the potency of cheap music… legitimised rough trade and kitsch’ (>). The first book of piano transcriptions focusses on the classic songs from the later 1920s and 30s such as ‘Love Is Hear To Stay”, ‘A Foggy Day” and “Embraceable You”. The second book offers exuberant earlier ‘Jazz Age’ products.

As with Gershwin’s own piano versions, there’s no connection with chord-based jazz improvisation; it’s the melodies which are constant. There is an approach familiar from earlier recordings in Metier’s essential Finnissy series, taken to an extreme on Folklore where the ‘harmony’ is really just coloration of the melody. In fact the two books of transcriptions are very different; the first more troubling, complex, hardly conventionally beautiful, the second lighter and more improvisatory. It’s impossible to do justice to the range of this remarkable music in a short review. Ian Pace has forthright views on these pieces and is an ideally characterful interpreter.”

“Michael Finnissy has restored the art of the piano transcription, and his versions of Gershwin standards have become the most frequently performed of all his voluminous piano output. Finnissy’s treatment of these songs – well-known numbers such as A Foggy Day in London Town to Love is Here to Stay, as well as less familiar ones – is immensely varied. Sometimes the melody is kept intact and its harmonic support enriched and extended, or surrounded by swirling figuration; sometimes it is fragmented and left to hover indefinably behind the teeming surfaces. Ian Pace’s playing is faithful and technically exemplary…”

“For a composer so readily identified with the “New Complexity” school, Finnissy has what might appear to be some curious preoccupations; he is a tremendous admirer of Godowsky, for one thing. Of course, it is through his own more than formidable gifts as pianist that he has become intimately acquainted with the great transcribers, and so suddenly it is less surprising that he has himself transcribed a considerable number of Gershwin songs. These are very unusual transcriptions, owing more than a little to Godowsky (though sounding nothing like him) in that the ‘complexity’ or density of texture is an inherent part of the presentation of the material, and it is necessary for performer and listener alike to be able to follow clearly simultaneously presented material in close polyphony. There are very few grand gestures here, and the Gershwin original is always discernable through the dissonant haze. Fascinating, and certainly among Finnissy’s most individual and enduring creations.”