Finnissy String Quartets

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COMPOSERS: Michael Finnissy
LABELS: NMC
ALBUM TITLE: Finnissy String Quartets
WORKS: String Quartets Nos 2 & 3
PERFORMER: Kreutzer Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: NMCD180

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Do the birds sing for any composer beyond Messiaen? Two British works of the new millennium, Jonathan Harvey’s glorious Bird Concerto with Pianosong and Michael Finnissy’s sublime Third String Quartet, have shown the answer to be an emphatic ‘yes’. Both introduce recorded birdsong, transforming the instrumental dialogue as well as the forms in which these pieces are written; indeed, Finnissy ultimately transcends the quartet genre.

Finnissy’s idea for his Bruckner-inspired Third String Quartet preceded his Second. Both allude to other works, and were written with the compelling advocacy of the Kreutzer Quartet in mind. Time pressure caused Finnissy to postpone his Brucknerian concept and write the more gritty nugget of the Second Quartet. Here, the four parts are mostly independent, occasionally drawing together. At times, too, you can hear the influence of Haydn, as if through frosted glass, notably in the impish pizzicato passage about a third of the way through.

The stunning Third Quartet, which also takes wing from Schoenberg’s Second Quartet, has a textural unity that gradually fragments. As the instruments become more imitative of birdsong, they begin to hesitate and recorded birdsong takes over. There are also telling, unfilled silences which make the eventual, complete replacement of instruments by the birds seem both necessary and natural, questioning and uplifting. They could out-sing any composer.

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Christopher Dingle