The Hong Kong Sinfonietta is known to be bold and innovative in its attempts to bring quality music to a broader audience, but even they cannot claim credit for clairvoyance in scheduling such topically timely appearances by Turkish pianist Fazil Say this weekend. Given events in his country of birth in the last week, he must be reflecting upon his suspended sentence in 2013 for allegedly “insulting religious values”. Yet he seemed relaxed and unruffled as he emerged from the wings with music director Yip Wing-sie.

Fazil Say © Marco Borggreve
Fazil Say
© Marco Borggreve

Fazil Say’s Silk Road for Piano & String Orchestra is an evocative kaleidoscope of musical and atmospheric effects in five sections traversing the vast land mass between the north-western parts of China and the far eastern end of Europe. The work opened with muffled strikes on the gong to signify the start of the journey, accompanied by low humming on the double bass placed behind and above the stage, the composer being at the piano. Strings joined the gentle but persistent oscillations on the piano in a frenzied shiver. Somewhere along the way, the piano became as much a melodic as a percussive instrument, with the pianist adding his own by tapping his feet on the floor. Although Yip Wing-Sze was on hand to provide orchestral direction, the soloist couldn’t help waving his free hand as if conducting. As string players tapped the body of their instruments to augment the percussive effect, Mr Say reached into the piano, sometimes to pluck the strings to create the effect of a harpsichord, sometimes to dampen the tone of a low note. Three strikes on the gong announced the last section of the work – “Earth Ballad” based on the Turkish folk song Ankara’nin Taşina Bak – as we reached our destination at the lyrical pinnacle of the work. It ended as quietly as it began. Mr Say played so many fascinating “tricks” on the piano that it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing a better job than he.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 21 in C major is such an over-analysed warhorse in the repertoire that new perspectives are hard to come by. Yet we were in for a surprise. Nothing was amiss as the orchestra launched into the long introduction, observing the Allegro maestoso marking. As the oboe handed over to the bassoon and then the flute, the piano quietly crept in, finishing the melody with a run and an extended trill. Apart from a few swallowed notes, so far so good. Then, as if possessed by a spirit, the soloist started to veer off in a direction on his own, maintaining superb fluidity but at points leaving the orchestra panting and scrambling. I could sense the purists among the audience squirming as Mr Say darted up and down the keyboard. Yet I couldn’t help but feel that, unorthodox as his method was, Mozart would have approved of his playfulness and spontaneity. The cadenza, however, was all his own, as Mozart couldn’t possibly have written the dramatic multiple-octave leaps.

The soloist withdrew into a shell in the Andante, appearing to be sheepishly subservient to the orchestra and underplaying his hand. Much as he excelled in sensitivity, he lost his way as the Sinfonietta unwaveringly chugged along in triple time. He came to life again in the final movement, delivering a thriving romp through a tortuous hide-and-seek with the orchestra. What really brought the house down, and the audience to their feet, was the encore. His jazzed up version of the “Turkish Rondo” from the Piano Sonata no. 11 elicited uproarious laughter.

Compared with the inventive freshness of Fazil Say, the second half of the evening was somewhat an anti-climax. The Eighth Symphony, despite being Beethoven’s shortest, is certainly not the least interesting. Its deceptively classical appearance conceals treasures for a discerning audience to uncover and savour. Although Yip Wing-sie and the Hong Kong Sinfonietta avoided the obvious pitfalls, such as playing it as if it was a work by Haydn, the interpretation fell short of the sound and fury characteristic of Beethoven. A little sharper dynamic contrast in the first movement, for example, would have done the trick. Overall, the tone of the orchestra was too austere to deliver the necessary impact. Where subtlety was called for, however, parts of the orchestra did well. The short interplay between horns and clarinet in the trio in the third movement was delightful.

But for the Turkish delights served up by Fazil Say, it would have been a rather ordinary evening. The Hong Kong Sinfonietta was wise to have enlisted his help.