Michael Finnissy – ViitasaariSarah Farmer2021-02-25T10:59:34+00:00
Performed at the BBC Proms Composer’s Porttrait concert, 2015
This performed by Rita Schindler (harp), Sofia Sarmento (piano), Sarah Farmer (violin) and Jack McNeill (clarinet)
In 2009, Michael Finnissy was composer-in-residence at the annual ‘Time of Music’ contemporary music festival that takes place in the town of Viitasaari, in central Finland. Finnissy composed a short chamber work for the occasion, named after the town and including the kantele, a traditional Finnish string instrument similar to the hammered dulcimer. The work has similarities with a number of the works featured earlier in this Lent series, partly because of the relationship between the four players, which again is indeterminate, lacking specifics of vertical alignment, but more due to its relationship with folk music, which draws a direct comparison with his 2011 re-imagining of the folk tune ‘A-lang Felton Lonnen’.
In Viitasaari, Finnissy uses as source material 19th century arrangements of Finnish folk music transcribed for the kantele. This material is retained by the kantele—which, in this performance, is played by the more readily available harp—alongside a somewhat awry rendition on the piano, plus two very much more askew versions on unspecified instruments (here performed by violin and clarinet). The nature of the skewing (Finnissy has called it “blurring”) is primarily harmonic; the kantele stays within its very specific tuning, while the piano begins to deviate from it and the other two enter a more microtonal pitch space. But the blurring extends to rhythmic relationships as well as general performance attitude. Again, this is a work where one cannot speak of a ‘definitive’ performance, but in this particular example—which took place during last year’s Proms Composer Portrait concert—there’s a stridency in both clarinet and violin that goes a long way from the demeanour of the hitherto foregrounded harp. The opening, with harp and violin, feels united only for the shortest time, the violin quickly drifting away, and when clarinet and piano enter the harp is entirely lost for a time, the new combined forces resembling an avant-garde species of music box. Although the harp’s material becomes increasingly difficult to make out, it nonetheless continues to make its presence felt through its harmonic language (all that audibly remains of its music) projecting up through the texture, causing the other three instruments’ music to be heard in relation to it. The connections have by now become complex and even questionable, but the harp somehow remains, sounding out in an otherwise crowded out environment. There’s something cyclic about Viitasaari‘s ultimate state, hypnotically so, and (just as in ‘A-lang Felton Lonnen’) the harp absents itself shortly before the end, leaving the remaining trio sounding a little adrift until their own abrupt conclusion.