On Wednesday night the Turkish-born star pianist, all-rounder musician Fazil Say returned to the Konzerthaus in Berlin shortly after completing his successful year of artist-in-residence there. Say, who also composes and plays Jazz, is known for his unconventional approach. On the evening's programme were piano hits by Haydn, Stravinsky and Beethoven as well as an exciting set of short pieces composed in the 1950s by the German avant-garde composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann.

This lavishly decorated hall built in 1818, is situated in one of Berlin's best touristic areas lined with trendy restaurants, bars, art galleries and only a few minutes walk to the historically important Brandenburger Tor.

Last night the atmosphere was friendly as if the hall was filled with a big family of fans of Fazil Say. When the lights were dimmed to begin the concert the audience waited in hushed expectation for Say to enter. He walked on demurely, almost shy, took a quick bow and immediately started the first notes of Haydn's B minor Variations. This ten minute set of variations, frequently played and much loved, is essentially an early piano fantasy in seven parts in which two themes in F minor and F major interact. As a highly accomplished pianist Haydn wrote over 60 piano sonatas. After an unusually slow theme Fazil Say gave the first couple of variations a refreshing twist expertly relishing the trill variation whilst singing occasionally and progressed increasingly romantically towards a Beethovenesque cadenza before fading out.

Igor Stravinsky's fiery, energetic and diabolical ballet Petrouchka seemed to be what the audience was waiting for. The pianist, wearing a black velvet Chinese-style blouse with black slim-fit trousers, almost jumped on the keyboard as he crouched over to tear out the forceful fanfaric opening chords. With his own piano transcription the famous Russian composer set out to write one of the most daring and demanding virtuoso piano works in which the pianist can show off his superb technique with hair raisingly fast jumps across the whole keyboard, an enormous dynamic range and complicated harsh rhythms. The mannequin-doll Petrushka is a bizarre, unhappy hero of Russian fairs who suddenly become alive, maddens the orchestra with his devilish arpeggios and threatens them with fanfares until he collapses after a mad climax.

More than anything in this programme this felt like his very own creative rendition. To evoke the colours of the different instruments in the orchestral original he stamped and tapped his foot. However, playing fewer notes than written and taking great liberties with Stravinsky's tempi raises some questions. In the rasping coda of the 2nd movement Fazil placed a score onto the bass strings of the piano as well as a metal object on the treble to simulate the orchestral colours.

After the interval Beethoven's grand last piano sonata, Piano Sonata no. 32 in C minor was on the menu. Ludwig van Beethoven being loved and feared in his time for his wild temperament came to a compositional climax with his last three piano sonatas. In them lies great passion, self-confidence, cutting clarity and pure simplicity. Often seen as the pinnacle of the 32 sonatas Op.111 achieves perfection despite its unusual two movement structure. Beethoven's affliction with deafness might have led to an exaggeration of musical characteristics, strong rhythmic drive, dramatic musical gestures and stark dynamic contrasts. This great work describes epic pain and world-weariness fading into the heavens. Managing to turn the score pages in lightning speed Fazil Say charged through the first movement occasionally stamping his foot to rhythmic passages, losing some clarity however. After a slightly stout beginning of the second movement lacking a sense of cantabile and giving happy audience members the chance to nod their heads rhythmically, the pianist caressed a most wonderful distant melancholic sound out of the Steinway grand. This is a section that most pianists fear for its merciless need of control and continuity, yet he seemed to be floating on air and told a sad fairy tale in the treble intercepted by soothing bass phrases. After a wonderfully rich re-awakening he became slightly carried away, leaving a wish for greater acoustic clarity. The composition ends with a long melancholic trill.

The evening was concluded by a dance-suite-like selection of pieces originally intended as studies by Zimmermann who died in 1970. Despite his involvement with the infamous Darmstaetter summer courses his musical style differs from his course colleagues', collaging different stylistic material taken from Barock to Beatles songs. Fazil made the most of the energetic modern toccatas as well as choral-like meditations whilst explaining the music vividly by his directional gestures.

Following an enthusiastic applause he presented two lovely encores, including his own composition , a sombre meditation with an alluring oriental melody.

Fazil Say © Marco Borggreve
Fazil Say
© Marco Borggreve