FINN COLLINSON – The Threshold (Old School Music OSMCD012)

The ThresholdFinn Collinson’s The Threshold is an album that wears its heart on its sleeve. The title describes where Finn feels his music is currently positioned: on thresholds waiting to be let in. Not an easy concept, but the inspirations are split between Londonwhere Finn lived and studied for four years – and his native East Anglia. Between the urban and the rural. It’s a personal and thoughtful album, often introspective and reflecting on societal changes of recent years as well as Finn’s environmental concerns. Not that I want to give you the impression that this is a gloomy affair. Because despite soulful and melancholy moments, this album includes plenty that is joyful.

Although often associated with the recorder, Finn is a singer and multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar and mandolin, on this album. He is also very ably supported here by his regular touring band. Archie Churchill-Moss plays guitar and diatonic accordion, Evan Carson plays bodhran and percussion, while Emma Beach plays oboes and supplies backing vocals on the four songs included on The Threshold. There are also guest contributions from Finn’s sister Rowan on fiddle and strings, along with Tom Leader on guitars.

First up are two linked tunes, composed by Finn. ‘Big Smoke I’ and ‘Big Smoke II’ are inspired by Greta Thunberg, particularly her ‘Our House is on Fire’ speech from 2019. It opens with a recorder solo, over an atmospheric electronic backing. It’s a gentle tune with a melancholy edge, but one that always feels like it’s leading up to something. This feeling continues, as the tempo builds in ‘Big Smoke II’. The recorder remains the main instrument until an oboe springs to prominence later in the track. This is an atmospheric piece, with a sense of growing anticipation. I felt it was building towards a crescendo, that never quite arrived. The two tunes together provide a powerful opening.

‘The Ship That Never Returned’ was written by the 19th century American songwriter Henry Clay Work, who also wrote ‘My Grandfather’s Clock’. Somehow it found its way to Suffolk, where the late John Howson included it in his Songs Sung In Suffolk. For this album, Finn has supplied a new tune, and changed the words to relate it more closely to Suffolk. The unnamed ship of the original becomes ‘SS Lapwing’, a cargo steamer lost off of Southwold in 1917. The narrative concentrates on a sailor, who sets sail promising his wife that this will be his last voyage. Which it is, but not in the way he planned.  The track starts with hand drumming, before starting to build as a guitar joins in.

‘Pool’s Hole’ consists of two tunes from the turn of the 18th century. ‘Pool’s Hole’ appeared in the 1690 edition of ‘The Dance Master’ and is followed by ‘Govatta’, a tune by the Florentine violinist and composer, Martino Bitti. Both arrangements are by Finn, and are played on the recorder, with a mostly guitar accompaniment, giving them a very authentic feel.

The ghost of a highwaymen features in Finn’s song ‘Jerry Bundler’. It’s based on a Victorian spine chiller, written by W. W. Jacobs, in which the title character haunts the house where he committed suicide, inflicting terror on later residents. The boisterous tune, which includes an impressive recorder sequence, has an appropriately menacing edge. This is another strong track.

After that excitement, a delightful tune is on hand to calm our nerves. Finn discovered that his home, while studying in London, was close to where his great, great grandfather worked.  John William Jones was an optical instrument maker, who became a Freeman of the City of London, and ‘John William’s Schottische’ was written for him. A solo recorder begins before accordion, oboe and percussion join in. This is a short track, beautifully played by all four band members.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard a Schottische before, so a quick look at The Oxford Encyclopaedia of Dance seemed appropriate. Despite its name, it’s not Scottish but Bohemian. This a type of slow Polka, that arrived in this country around the mid-19th Century.

I felt no need for any background research on the next track. ‘The Banks of the Sweet Primroses’ was widely collected and is enduringly popular. This version – the latest of many – works well with a simple, low-key accompaniment.

A set of three tunes follows. ‘8pm (Time for Bed)’ is a reel, written by Finn. He must be late after evening gigs! This is followed by another fast tune: ‘The Gravity Reel’, written by Fairport Convention’s Chris Leslie. The track opens with the reorder, accompanied by guitar. Things build from there, and the third tune – the traditional ‘Roddy McDonald’s Fancy’ – is the highlight of this set for me. It’s a fiery Celtic tune, and I enjoyed hearing recorder, accordion, bodhran and oboe together. The latter demonstrating how much like bagpipes it can sound.

The last song on The Threshold was written after a prolonged inward search. ‘Twelve Floors’ has poetic and quizzical lyrics, with a suggestion of looking down at the World, reflecting on the fragility of everything. “Everything balanced high on a wing, looking down, lost and found.” The guitar accompaniment works well, helped by some good fiddle playing from Rowan.

The final track, ‘Threshold’, is another set of three tunes. It opens with a hornpipe written by Henry Purcell, as incidental music for the 1693 play ‘The Double Dealer’. Led by the recorder, it’s a lively tune, but with a slightly courtly feel. That changes as we move into a traditional Northumbrian pipe tune, ‘Sir Charles’ Rant’. The final tune, ‘Threshold’, is another of Finn’s own compositions, with an unmistakeably Celtic feel

Finn regards the final track as reflecting some of his strong musical interests, and his musical development in recent years. It’s easy to see why as it takes in the 17th Century, English dance and a lively Celtic finale. It also reflects the musical arrangements prevalent on The Threshold, moving from some great solo recorder at the start, to lively ensemble playing later on.

The musicianship is a real strength throughout The Threshold. Finn is regarded as a leading exponent of the recorder, and deservedly so. Hearing it played as well as it is here, makes me wonder why it’s not heard more in folk music. All the supporting musicians contribute, but I particularly enjoyed Emma’s oboe playing. By using both the standard oboe and the tenor version – the cor anglaise – she expands the range and shows how atmospheric and effective they can be in traditional music.

Finn Collinson has a lot going for him. He’s talented, versatile, has a good band and is young. This is only his second album, following 2019’s Call to Mind, but I think we’ll be hearing lots more from him.

Graham Brown

Artist’s website: Home – Finn Collinson

‘Pool’s Hole’ – officially live: