From his first steps at the piano to his most recent projects mingling various styles and repertoires, the Turkish pianist and composer Fazıl Say unveils his career and his inspirations and gives us a glimpse of what it means to be a performer and a composer in the 21st century.

Fazıl Say
© Marco Borggreve

Nicolas Mathieu: You studied piano and composition in Ankara, then in Düsseldorf. Who were the teachers that were important to you and that you still think about today?

Fazıl Say: I began taking piano lessons at 5 years old with Mithat Fenmen, a wonderful teacher who was a student of Alfred Cortot in Paris. Then I went to the Conservatory of Ankara and had a great piano teacher Kamuran Gündemir, who also studied in Paris. Meanwhile, I studied composition with İlhan Baran, who was a student of Dutilleux. So as you can see, my main teachers in Turkey had all passed through Paris (laughs).

With the scholarship I received, I went to study at the Robert-Schumann-Hochschule in Düsseldorf with David Levine for four years, until he died in 1993. He was sometimes very sick for months and couldn’t come to lessons, but his students still learned how to play the repertoire and interpret it in a more personal way. Then I lived in Berlin and made a living teaching chamber music at the Hochschule für Musik while preparing for competitions. I won a prize at the Europe Young Concert Soloists Competition in 1994, and first prize at the Young Concert Artists Competition in New York the following year.

Was the Young Concert Artists prize in New York a determining factor in your career?

Yes, because it started my concert life and allowed me to play with many renowned orchestras. Also, three years later, I signed with Warner for recording. My first recordings sold pretty well, and in the 1990s they really contributed to my career’s success.

Fazıl Say
© Marco Borggreve

In 2016 you recorded the Complete Mozart Sonatas, and then in 2020 the Complete Beethoven Sonatas for his anniversary year…

I had already played ten Mozart sonatas in concert, and every year I learned one or two new ones. Of course people mostly asked me to play the Alla turca sonata because I am Turkish (laughs). So I thought I could take the time for a year to learn the rest of the sonatas for a recording, which I did.

After I completed the Mozart, it so happened in 2017 that many people asked me for concerts in 2020 for the Beethoven anniversary. Again, I counted the sonatas I had already played. There were 15 of them in my pocket, which were the difficult ones actually, like the Hammerklavier or the late sonatas. So I said to myself that I could learn the rest in 2 years, like I did before with Mozart. But it was more difficult than I expected.

Why so?

Beethoven is very difficult to learn, to analyse, to understand. He composed sonatas but these are more like symphonies. So I worked the sonatas by orchestrating them in my head, which was a very good idea because they sound orchestral.

Mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa, with whom you recorded a CD dedicated to French song in 2017, told us in a previous interview a clue about your playing: ‘When Fazıl plays it, it’s different every time.’ Is it essential for you to give that impression of freedom, of a playing different each time?

Music should always come out as an improvisation and a composition in itself is an improvisation. The composer tries, tries again, then he finds something he likes, develops it. Playing should imitate this process of improvisation. That is why there is always a search for freshness in the performance. But to do so, you have to learn how to play the piece, to memorise it, but also to learn how it works. That is what I do every time. I begin to work a new the piece away from the piano, analysing it, trying to understand everything: the melody, the harmony, the colours. Then, after days, I sit down on the piano and by then, the piece is almost inside my head.

You work on a wide repertoire, from classical music to jazz, through Turkish music. How do all of these styles meet in your art?

This approach of music is linked to the way I studied in Ankara and Düsseldorf. My teachers were interested in a large repertoire. They make me work really hard on Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, but also Debussy, Ravel, Messiaen, the Russian School and more avant-garde composers. 

As a composer of the late 20th/beginning of the 21st century, I show a gread deal of interest in any kind of music! There are several elements: modern ones, like the Gezi Park sonatas, or works influenced by Bartók or Stravinsky. I am also very interested in jazz and wrote many arrangements and pieces in jazz-like styles. Finally, ethnic music and, as for me, Turkish music in particular, which I find rhythmically interesting and actually new, in a way, for Europeans. I use a lot of elements from this music in my compositions!

You recently composed the cello concerto Never Give up dedicated to cellist Camille Thomas. How did your collaboration go?

About 5 years ago, Camille Thomas came to me and asked me to write a cello concerto for her, with a title: Never Give up. It was in 2016–2018, terrorism was everywhere. So I composed Never Give up to remember those attacks happening every year, but also as a call for hope to not give up and to live a good life. She played the concerto fantastically and we recorded it one year later for Deutsche Grammophon.

Did Covid-19 inspire you to give birth to new works?

Yes, I worked a lot on new compositions and new recording projects. Actually, without concerts, I had a lot of time for myself for the first time of my life. And I could achieve many projects I didn’t do or couldn’t do before because there was no time. For example, I am working on a CD project of modern Turkish music. Also, I can write music that is not commissioned, just because I want to write it. I can still try to do the best.

In an interview to France Musique in 2017, you said you had ‘big problems connecting’ with a section of the Turkish people. Where do you stand today?

We all know the problems in Turkey. The government and I have never really been good friends. My orchestral and stage works are still under censorship: they are not allowed to be performed, and not because they are bad pieces. It is not a happy time and I am hoping that there will be a better future.