I love Mozart. I particularly love his Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major. Not because it the epitome of the genre piano concerto for many, but because it is one of my earliest childhood memories of classical music. It has been a dear companion to me for over 20 years, and I don't forgive anyone who doesn't play it well. Fazıl Say is well known for his Mozart recordings, and my expectations for his performance of this concerto were high. They were not met.

Fazil Say © studio visuell photography
Fazil Say
© studio visuell photography

More so, I was disappointed. Say played with very hard attack and relentless forte. He seemed to be pushing, trying to overtake the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which matched his almost constant forte with a surprisingly big sound for a chamber ensemble. Say leaned into the orchestra as if for communication, then bashed out bass lines as if he was giving cues (which would have been entirely unnecessary), overpowering the orchestra several times. The quieter passages, which he played pleasantly softly, might have made you think that the governing idea was to show Mozart's impatient, musically explosive side, but the result for me only sounded rushed, untidy and mostly out of synch by just a fracture of a second.

The Andante, on the other hand, began beautifully, creating a sounding image of deep sadness and loneliness, with an orchestra that gave it all an emotional expressivity in a staccato-conversation between piano and bassoon and the spookily hollow pizzicatos. It is one of the saddest musical moments I know by Mozart, and it is so starkly contrasted by one of his trademark playful, sparkling and sometimes brash, faster melodies. Say leapt into the third movement with a big smile, and his boisterous fortes worked well in the bass-heavy chord passages, even though the coda seemed a bit sedate and the concerto as a whole for me was just not satisfying. It was his encore, the third movement of Concerto no. 12 that reconciled me with Say. With a much better balance between piano and orchestra, the solo voice bubbled along lightly and happily, and it was a nice touch to watch him "conduct" his own long notes in the cadenza that lingered in the sustain pedal. No banging on the keys, no pressured cues, just spirited, light-hearted music and playing. This is how you do Mozart!

While this was the piece I had initially been looking forward to most, I was just as curious about Say's own composition on the programme. His Chamber Symphony for strings was commissioned by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and it was a perfect match for the magnificent ensemble that had opened the evening with a very warm and calm sounding Siegfried Idyll. The symphony is strongly influenced by Turkish music, mirroring the composer's view on the Turkey of today and strongly characterising the vehement first movement. In traditional 7/8 meter and with characteristic glissandos that give it a distinct Turkish feel, the catchy melody was introduced very directly by the cellos. It also comprises a great deal of percussive elements and is split into as many different voices as there are musicians in each register.

Col legno, bird-like voices, musicians drumming on their instruments, plus a wealth of musical ideas, all merged into a very dense, vibrant sound, energetic and resolute. A longing, melancholy and entirely enchanting centre movement brought out the importance Say places on the romantic. Clusters embrace a tender pizzicato, a waltz swings by and leads to an elegiac cello motif in an extremely high register before the final movement ends the brief visit in a more European sound world, transporting the listener back into the Roma quarters of Istanbul with a romping, bass-driven dance that had bow hairs fly from all directions. The Chamber Symphony is a spectacular piece that requires an immense level of coordination and familiarity between the musicians to master its complex structures – with a conductor to lead the way. Yet the Orpheus navigated it with apparent ease and mesmerising precision, even in the rhythmically utmost challenging passages, it was a real pleasure.

Say's composition was the highlight of the evening. Haydn's Symphony no. 80, programmed in the usual sandwich format to mollify any listeners disgruntled at the new work, was unlucky enough to follow it. The orchestra played it impeccably, with a polished, full-bodied sound, breathing dynamics and plenty of virtuosity, but in all its crafty construction it just couldn't compete with the chamber piece's verve and energy despite the little surprises Haydn has equipped it with. It was a very agreeable close of an exciting performance nonetheless and once more stated the artistry of an exquisite orchestra in bold letters.