Monday 20 June 2016

A new release from Prima Facie Records of piano and chamber works by Douglas Finch reveals a composer who has developed his own distinctive language with impressive results, creating landscapes that are elusive yet intensely enveloping

The Canadian pianist and composer, Douglas Finch was born in Winnipeg and had his initial musical training with his mother and later Winnifred Sim and Jean Broadfoot. He continued at the University of Western Ontario with William Aide and then at the Juilliard School in New York with Beveridge Webster. After winning a Silver Medal at the Queen Elisabeth International Competition in Brussels in 1978, he began to perform extensively throughout Canada. He also devoted much of his time to composition, with a number of his works being broadcast on CBC Radio.

In 1993 Finch settled in London, UK and soon afterwards co-founded The Continuum Ensemble with conductor Philip Headlam, premiering over 40 new works and recording for Avie and NMC. He has been artistic director of several acclaimed events in London, including In the MOMENT, a festival of dance and music at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.

As a composer, he has written works for piano, chamber ensemble, orchestra and theatre as well as the soundtracks for four feature-length films by British director Jon Sanders. He is known for his innovative and imaginative approach to performance and for helping to revive the lost art of classical improvisation in concert.

Douglas Finch is Professor of Piano and Composition at Trinity Laban, and a regular guest teacher at Chetham’s School of Music as well as Chetham’s International Piano Summer School in Manchester.

A new release from Prima Facie Records features pianist Aleksander Szram , flautist Lisa Nelsen , violinists Toby Tramaseur and Mieko Kanno  and cellist Caroline Szram  in piano and chamber works by Douglas Finch entitled Inner Landscapes.


The landscapes on this new disc range across Canada, Germany, North Wales and New York yet reveal an inner landscape of solitude, mourning and spiritual longing. Finch draws on the paintings of the Canadian artist, Emily Carr whose works often bring a feeling of ‘loneliness and quiet rapture.’

Ruins (1984) is for flute, violin and piano and is a collection of five short pieces written whilst the composer was staying in Brussels and Cologne, the title reflecting the idea that these fragmentary pieces are, in the composer’s words ‘like ruins of grander and more expansive thoughts’. Gently flowing opens with a wavering theme for flute, violin and piano before the motif is gently developed through some very fine textures, these players sensitively finding many lovely moments. The piano of Aleksander Szram opens Calm, deeply and thoughtfully with  flautist Lisa Nelsen joining immediately followed by the violin of Mieko Kanno to take the music forward with sudden little outbursts from the violin, then piano, creating an intensity and foreboding which the flute tries to lighten at the end.

The piano suddenly enters with a loud chord to introduce Quick march, followed by a rhythmic staccato theme as the trio takes the music forward, the piano holding the staccato rhythm over which the violin and flute play, later quietening for a short gentle coda. Slow march brings slow, spaced chords from the piano with a repeated note from the violin. The flute enters over violin chords, bringing a subtly dissonant theme before rising up. The piano chords alone return for the coda.

Gently flowing brings a richer, slow and fluid undulating theme for all three players interrupted by an agitated phrase before slowly and gently moving forward again. Soon the undulating theme returns with the flute and violin weaving a fine texture over the piano. There are some exquisitely shaped passages before the piano brings repeated chords. The flow resumes but the piano chords again interrupt.  The violin and flute become increasingly anxious before a hushed conclusion.

These are distinctive miniatures that catch some lovely moments.

The idea for piano work, Lyric (1984) came to the composer during an autumn evening walk near Leaf Rapids, Northern Manitoba. A rising chord opens before a theme is slowly and thoughtfully revealed in the right hand over deeper chords. The theme is slowly developed in both hands with broader gentle chords appearing, soon finding a haunting atmosphere. The music moves through some lovely passages with occasional dissonant phrases and more dynamic rippling phrases to a faster moving passage that evokes the sound of trickling water. Aleksander Szram finds much delicacy and moments of contrasting drama before slowing to a hushed moment. There are sudden loud ripples but it is a series of gentle phrases that follow before the music finds its peaceful conclusion. This is a really evocative work.

Finch describes his approach to phrasing, development and form as neo-romantic in Fantasy on a Russian Folksong (1989). Although based on a Russian folk song this work, for violin, cello and piano was inspired by the landscape near Pwllheli in North Wales. The strings weave a rising and falling dissonant motif to which the piano adds its own stabilising line before developing through some impressive passages. Violinist Toby Tramaseur, cellist Caroline Szram and pianist Aleksander Szram weave some terrific lines and textures with gentler moments and later the strings weave lovely individual lines around the piano. These players find many little details that add so much. Later there is a passage that brings a great hushed intensity, rising later only to fall back as the music is thoughtfully worked through. A gentle, quietly repeated chord from all the players preludes another rise through a lovely passage of fine string textures and a florid piano passage as the fast final section arrives, bringing an intense forward moving variation, music of determined strength before a sudden end.

It is remarkable how much Finch has managed to develop out of the material of a simple folk song theme, finding so much variety, feeling and atmosphere.

Summer (1993) for cello and piano was inspired by North Wales and the Welsh poet Daffyd ap Gwilym . It brings a lovely contrast, a slow deeply felt melody that is slowly subjected to rather more dissonant textures before finding a peace to conclude. It is wonderfully performed by cellist Caroline Szram and pianist Aleksander Szram.

There are three piano works on this disc that bear the title Choral, originally inspired when the composer was listening to César Franck’s (1822-1890) Three Chorales for Organ. A two note motif opens Chorale I (2003) soon developing through firm, thoughtful chords. The two note motif appears again higher up and refracted through a dissonance before moving through delicate phrases to find a slow, reflective coda.

This piece is a quite exquisite jewel that receives a lovely performance from Aleksander Szram.

Landscape III (1998) for violin and piano is the third of a series of musical landscapes which the composer tells us are ‘pre-occupied by aspects of proportion, colour and layering meant to produce a kind of inner architectural ‘domain’ for the listener. There is a tentative pizzicato motif from the violin of Mieko Kanno, soon joined by pianist Aleksander Szram to develop the motif through some long drawn phrases. There are so many little details and textures as well as outbursts that bring a stridency, illuminating this landscape as striking images appear. There is a delicate pizzicato moment before gently we move forward through passages of exquisite detail. Later there is a striking outburst with gritty textures from both soloists with dissonances to disturb the landscape as passages of intense anguish appear. Eventually there are hushed harmonics from the violin over a gentle piano line before the violin finds pizzicato and lightly bowed phrases as the piano follows a gentle and delicate line. There are further dramatic outbursts but it is the hushed delicate phrases that end.

This is a quite stunning landscape full of contrasts.

The Ucluelet Peninsula is on the west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada and means ‘people of the safe harbour’ in the indigenous Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) language. Ucluelet (Landscape IV) (2000) for piano opens with the pianist laying out a slow, quiet, gentle theme, slowly gaining in strength as it slowly moves forward, developing all the time. Some very fine phrases, intervals and harmonies are subtly developed. Midway the music reduces to a hush as the theme is very slowly continued. There are some lovely spacious phrases and intervals that feel and sound atonal in character. Later the music suddenly develops a more forceful stance whilst keeping a fine rippling feel. Finch creates some complex intervals, textures and phrases before the music falls quieter again to find a hushed, delicate coda.

Chorale II (2013) opens quietly with a right hand theme over lower left hand chords. Finch achieves the most attractive harmonies and dissonances, slowly developed through a momentary more forceful passage to a gentle, hushed coda. These chorales prove to be impressive forms for Finch’s fine invention.

Lamentations (2001, rev. 2007) for alto flute violin and piano expands on a melody used in a theatre piece by the composer, Transplant, where the chorus lament the bringing out of bodies after a fictional shooting.

The combination of Lisa Nelsen’s alto flute and Mieko Kanno’s violin make a lovely texture and colour over which Aleksander Szram’s piano notes appear as they weave ahead. The piano takes the theme over the flute and violin with Finch, again creating a lovely atmosphere with little droops and so many details. The theme rises up through the flute joined by violin, then piano in this ascending theme. There are the most exquisite dissonances before the music grows steadily more dynamic and intense. Soon there is a plaintive little flute passage along with so many lovely little moments. Later the piano brings a rather ominous, low plodding passage to lead the music inexorably upward in dynamics. The flute and violin draw some very fine textures and harmonies moving through a strikingly beautiful passage with a slow, repeated, meandering piano motif over longer drawn phrases for violin and flute to the quiet coda.

This is another impressive work finely performed.

Chorale III (2013) brings a deep rippling theme in the bass, quickly overlaid by chords that increase in strength. Soon lighter, dissonant chords appear with bell like declamatory phrasing before falling back to reclaim the opening rippling motif underlaid by deep resonant bass chords. Firm chords take us to the coda where the notes are allowed to fade to silence. Aleksander Szram reveals this chorale to be a work of real depth.

Douglas Finch is a composer who has developed his own distinctive language that brings impressive results, creating landscapes that are elusive yet intensely enveloping. 

The performances are all first rate and the recordings from the Blackheath Concert Halls, London are excellent. There are excellent booklet notes from the composer as well as colour photographs of a painting by Emily Carr.

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