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Fazil Say: Pictures

Mussorgsky / Janacek / Prokofiev / Say
Release Date: 10/25/2011 
Label:  Naive   Catalog #: 5199   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Leos JanácekModest MussorgskySergei Prokofiev
Performer:  Fazil Say
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MUSSORGSKY Pictures at an Exhibition. JANÁ?EK Sonata 1.X.1905. PROKOFIEV Piano Sonata No. 7 Fazil Say (pn) NAÏVE V 5199 (CD + DVD: 147:13)

Relates Fazil Say, “A question I’m often asked is, ‘Can a Turkish performer really understand Czech or Russian music?’” It should be obvious that there is no reason that that couldn’t be the case, any more than an American would Read more be forbidden from understanding French music, or a Frenchman American. Whether Say truly understands the works on this CD is difficult to say (pardon the obvious pun, even if his name is, as is likely, pronounced “sigh-ee”), and a large part of the reason is by no means his fault. This recording presents some of the wimpiest, most lifeless sound I’ve ever encountered on a piano CD. Every single loud or climactic passage throughout the disc is particularly enervated by the recording, but softer passages too, although they suffer less, are stripped of sparkle and definition.

Recorded sound aside (and as I stated in an earlier review of Pictures , this is no small detriment when it comes to oft-recorded works such as the three here), Say brings to the Mussorgsky masterpiece varied touches—some inspired, some interesting, some miscalculated, and some sure to be controversial among pianophiles. Among the latter are a few places he has completely rewritten Mussorgsky’s score. One of the most striking of these is at the end of the third “Promenade,” where he stops the final three notes of the movement with one hand inside the piano while striking them on the keys with the other, producing a muffled sound. If I had been dozing off at that point (I wasn’t), hearing that would certainly have jolted me wide awake. The effect is novel and quite stunning, but probably radical enough that it won’t seduce other pianists into adopting it. Another such rewriting comes in measure 10 of “Limoges,” where Say foregoes the repeated 16th notes of the last two beats in the left hand, making them single staccato 16ths. Again, the effect is quite arresting for those who know the score, but it’s not Mussorgsky. A third significant change comes when he rewrites the right hand tremolo in “Con mortuis” to 16th-note figures alternating between octaves in the pattern of F? 6 -F? 5 -F? 5 -F? 6 . This figuration continues through the course of the movement, and only serves to lessen the mysterious aspects of the movement.

But there are many positive things to say about Say’s reading. His “Tuilleries” is the most capriciously tossed-off version I’ve ever heard. It is breathtaking, even if some of the banter of the children is lost. “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” is also taken at breakneck speed, which seems to work quite well, especially in the trio, where the pecking at the shells by those tiny beaks seems quite literally depicted. Say’s homunculus in “Gnomus” seems one of the tamer examples of this dwarfish species, but the concluding run is as facile as I’ve ever heard it. This fiendishly difficult run is executed cleanly by a number of pianists (Barry Douglas, for one), but no one matches Say here (albeit, he succumbs to the temptation of many pianists and slightly over-pedals it).

He also exhibits some very nice phrasing in “Il vecchio Castello” and elsewhere, but the staccati in the line in the left hand of “Castello” are downplayed, causing some loss of definition in the line.

“Byd?o,” on the other hand, presents the down side of this performance. These oxen are not pulling a heavy load. Rather, they’re out in the field, munching on tall weeds. Part of the impression is created, of course, by the insipid recorded sound, but Say exacerbates the matter by using Rimsky’s misguided pianissimo opening. “Limoges” likewise comes off as much too careful. Say doesn’t even hit the target here, much less the bull’s eye. In measures 33ff, the movement completely runs out of steam at the very point that it should be driving to its climax!

There is a lot more I could say, pro and con, about Say’s CD of Pictures, but I’m not going to recommend it anyway, because of the sound. Pity that. There are some distinctive things going on here, and a few touches of brilliance that would be worth hearing for those who want to have a really different take on the work in their collections.

Janá?ek’s Sonata 1.X.1905 comes off much better than does Pictures, in part because it has fewer dramatic climaxes that are ruined by the sonics, and the fact that in a rhapsodic work of this sort, Say seems to be most in his element. The Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 7, on the other hand, suffers from the sound about as much as Pictures does: The fireworks that open the work are all duds that fail to explode, as are the repeated chords at the close. Only part of the failure of this recording is the sound—the rest of the blame must lie in Say’s lap, although generally the more serene portions of the work sit quite well with me.

After my comments, the reader may be surprised, if not shocked, that I am going to—after all—recommend the purchase of this set! Yes, it is a set, containing the same program also on a DVD of a live performance from Grenoble from February 2011. The sound is so much better on the DVD as to completely recast Say’s interpretation of these three works in my mind. On the DVD, the oxen have finished their lunch and have gone back to work; the two Jews are no longer bosom buddies, but once again antagonists; the catacombs, thoroughly dead in the CD version, have (ahem) come back to life. The passion of the Janá?ek, utterly absent in the CD, is now to be found in good measure, and the fireworks in the Prokofiev have gone off, albeit not to the spectacular degree that they do in the renditions of Richter or Ashkenazy. There is also the interesting visual perspective: Say’s gestures may be distracting and affected to some, but I find them quite entertaining. At points, he “conducts” his performance with his head, upper torso, or any hand that might be free at the moment (most often in Pictures, which has a number of passages that require only one hand).

So, yes, get this set, and use the CD in it for a coaster. Sure, the better sound on the DVD doesn’t remove all the objections that I expressed, especially those concerning Say’s take on Pictures, but it vacates enough of them to allow one to enjoy the playing of this artist, who is quite persuasive in this music. Besides, there are some things (for example, the lead-in to “Ballet of Chicks”) that work better in the live performance on the DVD than they do in the studio recording, and there’s a bonus track of the artist at work in the recording studio to boot.

FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
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Works on This Recording

Sonata 1.X.1905 "From the street" by Leos Janácek
Performer:  Fazil Say (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1905; Brno, Czech Republic 
Sonata for Piano no 7 in B flat major, Op. 83 by Sergei Prokofiev
Performer:  Fazil Say (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1939-1942; USSR 
Pictures at an Exhibition for Piano by Modest Mussorgsky
Performer:  Fazil Say (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1874; Russia 

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