Michael Finnissy played for slightly less than an hour last night in Jordan Hall, but his recital left more to ponder than many a keyboard marathon.
The British composer-pianist turns 60 this year, but he's still a maverick. His recital for New England Conservatory's Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice offered a brief survey of his life in music. It began with three pieces he wrote between the ages of 12 and 14 and ended with an homage to Satie , ``ERIK SATIE, like anyone else, " which he composed in 2002. In between came short works by two teachers and mentors, Bernard Stevens and Elisabeth Lutyens , and album leaves by colleagues, friends, and students.
Even at 12 Finnissy had an unusual mind. Two Mazurkas are rescued from conventionality by the fact that the right and left hands are playing in different keys; the slightly later ``Romance (with Intermezzo)" stands in the narrow territory between late Brahms and early Schoenberg .
The tribute to Satie, at about 18 minutes, was the longest piece on the program. The model here is not any of the composer's hit parade pieces, but instead the elegant and relatively little-known ``Socrate" and the Nocturnes. Much of the music consists of slow, quiet, two-part inventions in the right hand, supplemented from time to time by more in the left. Pauses are significant as the music gradually speeds up, develops a more complex texture, and a more playful mood.
The most extroverted and spectacular of the other pieces were Judith Weir's ``Strathspey and Reel" (a vigorous exercise in parallel motion with the hands an octave apart) and Andrew Toovey's ``To Sappho." For this, Finnissy pulled over his hands what looked like a pair of lime-green ankle socks, and rapidly pummeled the keyboard with open palms to alarming effect. Howard Kempton's ``Mickey Finn," Chris Newman's ``All Change , " and Claudia Molitor's meditation on a Tyrolean Christmas carol are slippery pieces that follow emotional rather than musical logic.
In Stevens's `` Elegiac Fugue , " masterly technique and strong emotion become one. And Lutyens's ``La Natura dell'Acqua" (``The Nature of Water") is a striking addition to the great tradition of splashing water music, spare yet evocative -- and based, according to Finnissy's note, on Leonardo da Vinci's visual codifications of the behavior of liquids.
Finnissy is an amazing pianist, commanding a full spectrum of colors, textures, and dynamics which he deploys in a very subtle way, even when he is pounding the keyboard with green-socked hands. He offered a single encore. ``It's by Gershwin," he said, ``not me. It's `Swanee' -- or it was." Finnissy's transcriptions of Gershwin, folk songs, and operatic music are difficult but they are not display pieces. Instead they are interpretations. Since the time of Al Jolson , ``Swanee" has been sung as celebration. Finnissy's version, dense in counterpoint, rich in harmony, and ravishingly played, finds in it music of nostalgia, regret, and profound sadness.