To put it mildly, Fazil Say is one of a kind. Active both as a performer and as a composer, it is rare not to come across his name in the programmes of many of the world’s greatest concert venues. This time, it was Paris’ Theatre des Champs Elysées, a stage usually occupied by orchestras and opera companies. Say, however, manages to occupy this space merely by his presence. Before the start of the concert, I came across one interesting piece of information as I consulted the programme : “Fazil Say – born in 1925”. Either a harmless typo, or Say hides his age extremely well...

Fazil Say © Mustafa Toygun Ozdemir
Fazil Say
© Mustafa Toygun Ozdemir

Alone on stage, Say took no time in filling the hall with his presence and his performance of Beethoven’s Sonata no. 17 in D minor, Op.31 no. 2. Full of energy and brilliance, Say’s interpretation was textured, with plenty of sudden silences leaving the audience momentarily breathless after having been knocked for six by a thunderous chordal passage seconds before. Although well-textured overall, Say’s performance was at times slightly too heavy, particularly in the left hand which, alongside a generous helping of pedal, made for an unintelligibly thick blend of notes. These heavy patches, though brief and rare, unfortunately clouded nonetheless the clarity of certain louder passages.

A more emotional side was fortunately able to shine through in the softer passages, full of rubato, and in particular the Adagio movement during which Say displayed a far more delicate and sensitive approach, to great effect. Naturally, this softness was quickly swept to one side as the powerful Allegretto began, bringing this powerful work to its roaring conclusion.

After the powerful Beethoven came the delicately melodic Debussy, with six of his Book 1 Préludes. An important work in the French piano repertoire, Debussy’s preludes are known and loved by all, making their performance in Paris all the more audacious, faced with a learned and music-loving French audience. Clearly undisturbed, Say calmly proceeded with each prelude, each dreamier and more playful than the last, made even more so by Say’s own playful and almost theatrical performance, often gesturing with his hands to the piano as if to draw out the notes from the strings. Quickly drawn into the music, Say was often caught humming along with the melody, or tapping his foot with passion, or waving his arms as if conducting. One might find these gestures extravagant or distracting (and at times, they were), but in the end they are part of Say’s on-stage presence, and indeed part of the music. Distraction or not, Debussy’s music was nonetheless done a great service by Say, a service greatly lauded by the audience.

Whenever Debussy is performed, Satie is normally never far away, and sure enough the Trois Gymnopédies followed the preludes. If Debussy’s Preludes are loved by French music audiences, Satie’s Gymnopédies are heard and loved by music audiences throughout the world, making their performance an even rarer occasion due to their overwhelming popularity. Nonetheless, Say proved with each movement that he does indeed have a softer side, and even capable of distinguishing between the melodic importance of Debussy and the more intricate and curious nature of Satie’s music. On a more general note, this as a whole reflected a careful choice in the programme choice, allowing Say to showcase his powerful virtuosity with Beethoven, his melodic sensitivity with Debussy and his intricate playing with Satie.

What, therefore, would the final work, Say’s own composition Sonata Gezi Park no.2, bring to the table? Both frantic and powerful, it made clear from the beginning that this would be a non-stop whirlwind ride, full of unusual harmonies and techniques, such as muting strings with the hand to create a more percussive sound. Overall, the work is perfectly tailored to Say’s technique and style of performing (unsurprising, considering he is the composer). Though musically the work occasionally proved difficult to follow and enjoy, one cannot deny that Say is a formidable and curious composer and performer, wholly capable of bringing freshness and a new light to music that we have heard many times before.