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DVD: Fazil Say

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Fazil Say: Alla Turca, directed by Gösta Courkamp

(released May 27, 2008)
Arthaus Musik 101 443
Maverick Turkish pianist Fazil Say would be loved here at Ionarts solely on the basis of his astonishing recording of the two-piano version of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. He has proven himself over the years in many ways, less as a magisterial technician, although his pianism is formidable, than for the unpredictable brio of his approach. When one sits down to hear him, anything could happen, for better or worse. As Say himself puts it in the liner essay of this new DVD, "We musicians are not technicians -- our aim is to tell a story." Along comes relatively new documentary filmmaker Gösta Courkamp to try to unravel the mystery of Fazil Say, with a lot of beauty shots of Turkey along the way. No Rite of Spring, unfortunately, which Say plays simultaneously with himself recorded on an automated Bösendorfer, as in the video below.

The son of a musicologist and critic, Say is at once historically aware and interested in bucking tradition. He tends to make other people's compositions his own, most in a rather radical way. In the film Say situates his approach in terms of a meeting between East and West. That idea of "classical" music as a bridge is symbolized in beautiful images of one of the suspension bridges that now spans the Bosphorus. That famous waterway between Europe and Asia is constantly in the background, as Say speaks to the camera in German, learned when he was a scholarship student in Berlin, and plays in the ruined Esma Sultan Palace (Liszt's arrangement of the BWV 543 fugue and Busoni's arrangement of the D minor chaconne). If you remember that trope about Apollonian vs. Dionysian pianists, Say's performance of Beethoven's Appassionata sonata, complete with his trademarked grimaces, gyrations, hand gestures, places him firmly in the latter category.

Fazil Say (and Fazil Say), Rite of Spring

Less successful is the section about Say's interest in improvisation, launched by a supposedly impromptu moment with Turkish pop icon Sertab Erener. The singer's cell phone just happens to go off as they are chatting, to the tune of Mozart's Rondo alla Turca. Those familiar with Say's concerts know that he often uses that piece as a basis for a jazzed-up encore. (He does something similar with his Paganini Variations, as seen in the clip below.) The same is true of his arrangement of Aşık Veysel's song Kara Toprak (Black Earth), which we have heard him play as an encore. What has the not-so-young turk produced lately? The end of the documentary is given over to a performance at Aspendos amphitheater of Nazim, Say's overblown oratorio honoring the poet Nâzım Hikmet.

Fazil Say, Paganini Variations, Prague, 2002

There is no mention of Fay's plans for the future. The Turkish press has reported that Say will release a new album this fall with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, titled A Thousand and One Nights in the Harem (Haremde Binbir Gece). It will contain music by Beethoven, Ravel, Bartók, and Say himself.

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