Pianist Fazil Say Is Truly One Of A Kind

Fazil Say (Photos: Marco Borggreve)

François Couperin: 21st Order in E Minor from Fourth Book of Harpsichord Pieces; Claude Debussy: Suite bergamasque, L. 75; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 11 in A Major, K. 331; Fazıl Say: new work. Koerner Hall, November 6, 2022

Fazil Say received the sort of walk-on welcome Sunday afternoon that is normally reserved for a national hero — which is arguably what this politically conscious pianist has become to modern-minded Turks. Rest assured that the calibre of performance also had something to do with the hubbub in Koerner Hall.

Trained in Germany, Say incorporates a few impulses into his interpretive ambit. After lulling us into a calm with his gracious treatment of the theme of the first movement of Mozart’s Sonata in A Major K. 331, the 52-year-old was pianistically off to the races, sometimes evoking Prokofiev, sometimes Chopin. Yet one never sensed that the central gravitational pull of Mozart was missing.

This sonata ends with the celebrated Rondo alla Turca, here taken at a brisk and firm-fingered allegro. The left hand seemed to compete for prominence. The effect was exhilarating.

Speaking of hands, Say moves them continuously, often “conducting” above the keyboard à la Glenn Gould when the rests allow. Add a tendency to twist and turn on the bench, and you are confronted with a most individual stage presence. At some point in a set of François Couperin harpsichord pieces — the 21st Order in E Minor from Book 4 — I managed to overcome my urge to look the other way.

More French music followed. Clair de lune is much the most famous of the four pieces comprising Debussy’s Suite bergamasque. Say sustained it at a spellbinding pianissimo, elongating note values to maximize romance. The concluding Passepied was a marvel of elegant patter.

After intermission, we heard music by Say himself, including the North American premiere of the Yeni hayat (“New Life”) Sonata, a pandemic-period work which clocks in as his Op. 99. There was some strumming and plucking of piano strings but the primary allegiance of this three-movement fantasy is to jazz. The second movement is marked pesante, “heavy.” Say did not fail to obey his own indication.

There were other jazzy pieces, presumably including much improvisation, and sometimes punctuated by stamping feet. We heard virtuoso elaborations of Paganini’s inexhaustible Caprice No. 24, Gershwin’s “Summertime” and (to conclude) the Rondo alla Turca, all highly effective. But the most memorable Say composition was Black Earth, a solemn reflection on a Turkish popular song combining a low ostinato with hand-dampened struck notes that are meant to evoke the saz, a traditional Turkish instrument. The illusion of an ensemble — maybe even an orchestra — was remarkable.

Say’s repertoire of stage idiosyncrasies included a habit of launching into pieces before the audience had settled down. It is worth noting that the pianist kept sheet music handy on the Steinway, but did not often consult it.

As Mervon Mehta, executive director of performing arts for the Royal Conservatory of Music, acknowledged in his opening remarks, most of the sellout crowd was of Turkish descent. One of the advantages of living in cosmopolitan Toronto is the viability of presenting international artists who also have strong local appeal. The Dec. 2 recital by the Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov is already sold out.

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