Marsyas Trio
Lotte Betts-Dean mezzo-soprano
Joseph Havlet piano


Michael Finnissy is one of the most articulate and prolific composers of his generation, generally bracketed with other pioneers who have soldiered for decades under the dauntingly unhelpful flag of New Complexity. Those with open ears should not blench: this is an engaging and accessible issue, displaying Finnissy’s trademark precision and creative powers. The playful title references not only the eponymous work but the fact that several pieces – which span Finnissy’s entire career – are grouped into pairs or cycles, replete with cross-references, allusions, and the composer’s customarily wide-ranging influences. 

Alternative Readings, for flute, cello and piano, derives from Bruckner’s First Symphony, each instrument responding, Ives-like, in entirely independent tempi. Two accounts of the work are included: one live, one studio. The rethinking of source material in Salomé addresses its subject through different authors. Most of the scores include the superbly pure and flexible voice of Lotte Betts-Dean, at the start of her career but already a phenomenal artist, a worthy successor to such past champions of the repertoire as Jane Manning and Josephine Nendick. 

Vocal line, whether actually vocalised or not, has always been of paramount importance to Finnissy, and the earliest work presented here, his oldest surviving song, dates from his first years at the RCM. In this setting of Keats’s Oxford in 1917, it is remarkable to encounter his imagination already in full flight, apparently established right from his first lessons ‘when he instinctively reached for all the piano keys.’ 

Two ravishingly beautiful miniature settings of verses from the Beatitudes, Blessed be, are both crafted from irregular modes or scales occurring in melodies of nineteenth-century hymnals. There was insufficient room on the CD for their two companions (one written for Gerald English with harp ensemble, the fourth just for solo voice), but all are unmistakably Finnissy in their grace-notes and subtle phrasing. 

June, based on two monodies by Hildegard of Bingen, has comparable structural foundations. Botany Bay (1983–89), deriving in turn from the single line of a colonial folksong, is one of the first of Finnissy’s works prompted by the indigenous art and landscape of Australia (exemplified, perhaps, by his 1988 Proms commission Red Earth): a warning to would-be felons of their likely destination, filtered through the microtonal sound-world of Aboriginal music. ‘I don’t design monuments’, Finnissy has observed. ‘I have adventures, I go on journeys.’

The journey of Wisdom, the most substantial work, employs texts from Dreamtime myths to Mary Shelley, some immediately followed by their translations, as if one were encountering a particularly erudite documentary. A three-movement nocturnal song-cycle with overlapping material, An den Mond, is fashioned from Goethe, alludes to Schubert, and forms a gratifying conclusion to a fascinating disc.

Review by Andrew Plant