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S & H Recital Review

Haydn, Ravel, Say, Stravinsky Fazil Say (piano). Queen Elizabeth Hall, Thursday, April 29th, 2004 (CC)


Turkish pianist Fazil Say projects himself as an individualist, setting himself apart from the usual concert-pianist crowd. He even includes his own (here jazz-inspired) compositions in recital and he tours his own playback version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Avidly supported by fellow country-persons on the strength of the audience at the South Bank, possessed of a high-profile recording contract with Naïve, his reputation preceded him (he seems to appear infrequently in the UK - although see Marc Bridle’s review of his recent recital with Vengerov).

The first half of the present recital began with a trio of Haydn keyboard sonatas – No. 48 in C; No. 46 in E; No. 35 in A flat. The first boded well. Lively and cheeky, appealingly alive to Haydn’s wit, fine control was in evidence. Mobile as a player, Say certainly looked as if he was enjoying himself, even getting carried away and over-projecting the treble on occasion (or being too robust in the finale). The E major brought further doubts, Say exhibiting a propensity for flicking at chords and, again, periodically forcing the tone of his Bösendorfer.

These were readings of contradiction. On the one hand careful preparation was audible (even to the extent of carefully stage-managed hands-away-from-keys gestures: Brendel does these better); yet not every note of the finale of No. 35 spoke.

Ravel might have been closer to Say’s heart, perhaps, yet his sensitivity to the harmonic shifts of the first movement of the Sonatine was low, the top line was again over-projected and more of those distracting physical movements disappointed. The delicate Menuet held out the most hope so far, a sensitivity that extended to the finale’s tender reminiscence of the first movement’s theme.

To close the first half, Say played a five-minute composition of his own, Black Earth (1997), based on a popular song, Kara Toprak by the Turkish singer-poet Asik Veyset. A dark, low beginning was truly cavernous and led to the use of various effects, plucked strings evoking the Turkish saz. But the work as a whole is possibly best described as Radio Two jazz with a dopamine injection. Any more than five minutes would have been too much. Say has recorded this work on Naïve V4954.

And so to Say’s party-piece, the Rite of Spring. Much has been made of Say’s solo performances of the four-hand version of this piece, aided and abetted by the Bösendorfer 290SE computer technology. Effectively a pianola for the twenty-first century, Say adds to the Cageian effects produced by plucking or striking the piano’s strings. A Stravinskian prepared piano then (with live on-screen keyboard relay), this made for interesting listening (although I’m not sure I want to repeat the experience).

Taking away the orchestral colours means the rhythmic element (so vital in this work anyway) is even more foregrounded, yet the downside is that the sheer visceral volume is lost. So climactic trombone glissandi lose their effect (although the use of piano-string glissandi sounded for all the world like a crib from one of Stockhausen’s early electronic works).

Of course the hollow depth of the opening of Part II was missing. On a performance level, the ‘Glorification de l’élue’ just sounded like Say was counting furiously!.

The most successful moment was the ‘Evocation des ancêtres’, Say creating quite an aggregation of sound - yet the ‘Danse sacrale’ was more fun to watch than to listen to. Whilst one can admire Say’s rhythmic sense, sheer abandon was absent.

The programme booklet quotes Say as saying, ‘What matters to me is not who is playing on what instrument but rather how that instrument is being played’. An admirable (if somewhat hackneyed) sentiment that Say failed to live up to.

Colin Clarke


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