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Fazil Say Ain't Haydn

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J. Haydn, Keyboard Sonatas, Fazil Say
Pianist Fazil Say is a probably prankster, maybe a madcap, possibly a Pierrot. But he’s not a charlatan. The line between the merry raconteur and fraud can be thin sometimes, or fuzzy. To put him firmly on one side of this divide, and not the other might be matter of the heart with Mr. Say and his art… and dependent on the extent to which we wish to give someone the benefit of the doubt.

Why start a review like this? If you have ever seen Fazil Say in concert, you probably know why. His antics, his mannerism, his behavior, and his playing are all of a kind that could easily elicit damming denunciation – or lucid raves. My comment about his Baltimore recital last year was: "situated between misdemeanor and defilement, expert pianism and pure show." It isn’t that I am fooled into thinking that his heart-on-my-sleeve movements, head-throws, humming, hopping, arm-flinging is just him, helplessly responding to the music. No, just like most other artists, he does these sort of things with careful calculation. I usually respond allergic to such behavior because it’s ultimately an insult to the audience; it’s all about making a show that is detracting from the music. If I want an interpretive dance of my Beethoven sonata, I’ll be sure to attend a performance labeled as such.

While just about every artist has a few gimmick moves (Julia Fischer, so regal otherwise, doesn’t throw her head and hair and bow back in the Beethoven concerto without knowing the visual effect it has on her audience), there are some that seem to get the balance wrong. Lang-Lang is notorious for that. Ditto Denis Matsuev. Both guys can play, but both are better still at getting inexperienced audiences rallied with acting, no matter the musical or qualitative content of a particular recital. Fazil Say is one of them, too, but somehow he’s different to me. When he does his nonsense, I am usually at my most charitable, forgiving all… because he may be acting, but he seems so darn genuine. He really is a clown, so clownery comes natural to him. He’s aware of it and its effects, and he may model himself as a latter-day Glenn Gould (sans Gould’s phenomenally clean technique, it must be said), but somehow it appears not as coldly, cynically calculating as with others.

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Haydn - Gould

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Haydn - Brendel (1)

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Haydn - Brendel (2)

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Haydn - Pletnev
It helps that I first encountered Say on disc, not live, and with a recording that I continue to rank among the five finest piano recordings I have ever heard: His Stravinsky Rite of Spring (Piano version for four hands!) is a riot and a wonder. Then I heard him with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in Gershwin’s Rhapsodie in Blue. An overplayed evergreen – but boy is it tailored for someone of the temperament and spunk of Say. At least in live performance the work thrives on the irreverence with which he treats it (and sometimes his art); his was a concert to behold. Do the same thing to Beethoven (in a recital at Shriver Hall, later that year), however, and it does not quite work. Not live, and not on record much, either.

Speaking of record: his recordings for Warner Classics have sadly been deleted from the catalogue; Mr. Say now records exclusively for the naïve label. A disc with his own compositions – “Black Earth” – should be sampled. It’s includes his effective and effectual encore of the same name and other, mostly Turkish/Middle Eastern influenced works that tickle the ears in all the right ways. His Mozart piano concertos (Nos. 12, 21 & 23) have received (some) very positive reviews, his Beethoven sonatas are, erm… “different”. Fuzzing around with Beethoven is more difficult to justify than when done to Gershwin or Bach transcriptions. Or, for that matter, Haydn:

Few composers have more wit and grace than Haydn; consequently Haydn can absorb quite a bit of ‘external character’. His piano sonatas – as so much of his œvre – are music to be had fun with. Glenn Gould had fun with it and produced a marvelous recording of the last Haydn sonatas (48-52, Sony). Fazil Say now has brought us a disc of Haydn piano sonatas, too – Nos. 10, 31, 35, 37, and 43. They are charmed and charming, they are quirky and delightful. If Say can’t quite draw the same attention unto himself in the recording studio (which is largely a good thing), it’s not for lack of trying.

His playing reminds a little bit of Mikhail Pletnev’s. Odd accents, changes of meter on a whim, impetuous all the way. No harm done to Haydn (although the best of all Haydn interpreters on disc, Alfred Brendel, does none of this and still makes these works sparkle with wit and life), and the added twinkle had me listen again and again. Sadly, beyond the accents, Mr. Say intrudes upon the listener with his humming. It’s difficult to believe that this is anything other than the conceit of a self-styled Gould-wannabe, an overt rebel who points at himself and proclaims: “There, look, here you have it, I’m completely rebellious!” It’s a studio recording… even if his nature compelled him to hum along music, lest he not be able to play it well otherwise, it could be edited out. The fact that it isn’t is part and parcel of the strategy with which Say is sold. I’d be lying if I claimed that I wasn’t occasionally annoyed with these extraneous sounds (why do pianists – specifically Messrs. Jarrett, Gould, and Say – never hum in tune, either?), but neither did it keep me from wholeheartedly enjoying this disc full of musical sunshine. -- Caveat emptor; for my part, the disc will remain within grabbing distance on my shelf for a while!

naïve 5070


Terry said...

Fazil Say in his Baltimore performance seemed to be that that kid from the practice rooms in college - every music school has one - supreme sight reader & entertainer but not focused to learn the details of the score. Lang Lang and Matsuev are putting thought into their performance and the impression they create, whether or not you agree with their brand of showmanship. Or so it seems to me.

jfl said...

I think you've got a valid point there... at least as Lang Lang is concerned. Matsuev 'live' is simply not my cup of tea. It's all so very of the Russian "the new confidence" movement... hollow, lying through its musical teeth, self-satisfied beyond the pale. But he's clearly the better technician than Say in regular performance. Then again, having heard the latter's Rite of Spring, he could probably challenge that perception if he practiced enough. :-)

Anonymous said...

He's certainly above a level as a performer. But, compositions? His compositions are big and bad jokes.

Unknown said...

Definitely Charlatan!

[-1-] (Gottschalk) ("Fazıl Say"...??)
_ _ _

Massimiliano Grotto:
"mmmm.... it's Beethoven Patetic sonata... the third mvt is the same! you can play the melody with this Say's piece and you will have the same armony :) "
_ _ _

Brahms vs. Say
_ _ _

Most stupid musical plagiarism!

I am not a pianist, a musician or a musicologist.
I am not a Fazıl Say listener either.
If I was one of them (amongst above listed), I'm sure I could find more examples of Say's plagiarism.

But I can say that, when you listen Say's "composition", you feel like all the tunes are very bad variations, even meaningless transformations of a hidden real/main/original tune. Sometimes he forgets to hide the original :)