FINNISSY Vocal Works, 1974-2015
This is one of those recordings where composer and performers seem uniquely matched. One senses a degree of commitment that is rare even from an ensemble that isn’t known for pulling its punches. The four pieces recorded here span five decades, the earliest of which, Cipriano, is a ‘dramatic madrigal’ whose soloist endures (and delivers) extraordinary pyrotechnics against a scarcely less truculent ensemble, and the latest a cycle (2012 14) inspired by Gesualdo’s Sixth Book of Madrigals. It’s surprising in retrospect that Finnissy hadn’t previously sharpened his wits and his pen against the notorious Italian, given their shared interest in transgressions of various sorts. It is perhaps the most approachable work of the recital and in some ways also the most subtle.
My own favourite is the starkly serious yet sensual fifth madrigal, for which Exaudi divide into two choirs that exchange smudged, overlapping chords. The trite phrase ‘well heard’ is often an unintentional backhanded compliment, but here I use it admiringly: the interplay of these sonorities really is extraordinary. That the essential character of all seven pieces can be recalled after just one hearing testifies to their impact and cogency. The cycle also shows that Exaudi’s virtuosity doesn’t just hit you between the eyes; it runs deep.
The two middle works are more in keeping with what one might call Finnissy’s grand style, and here Exaudi do let rip. In Tom Fool’s Wooing (1975, rev 2015), clear narrative elements are just as clearly obscured, and a central parlando, self-consciously theatrical section in English is framed by more abstract episodes. Abstraction takes over almost entirely in the concluding Kelir, which dates from the time of Finnissy’s Second Quartet and shares with it a comparable, almost classical ambition (or as close to a sort of classical modernism as Finnissy gets). Exaudi’s wonderful sopranos are showcased throughout the recital, but at the very end it’s the bassi profundi who have the last word. Superb.