"Wer den Dichter will verstehen, muss in Dichters Lande gehen" we read in Goethe's West-Eastern Divan (He or she who wants to understand the poet must go to the poet's country.) This is something that certainly applies to pianist, composer and cosmopolite Fazil Say, who is known for his particular relationship with the works of Mozart. "Since my childhood I have moved in Mozart's music as if in a happy, scenic event... Mozart's music has reminded us for centuries of the original and positive in man," he has explained, talking about the importance of Mozart's compositions to him. Having seen him in a Mozart/Say programme last year and having struggled with his Mozart performance then, I could not help being curious how it might differ this evening. And it certainly did.

Fazil Say © Marco Borggreve
Fazil Say
© Marco Borggreve

Where I found the forceful, hammering approach rather grim last time, this year's Heidelberger Frühling audience encountered a velvet-pawed Say who visibly enjoyed himself. In characteristic fashion, with manically working wrists and elbows, he pounced on the opening chords of the pasticcio that is Mozart's First Piano Concerto with his left, counterbalanced by surprisingly tender strokes of his right hand, tapping along with his feet as if playing a blues gig, with the joy of playing writ large all over his face.

The Heidelberg Symphonic, with divided violins and cellos to the left, provided strong support, with dappled arpeggios and snappy orchestral interjections. They too visibly enjoyed playing, both in an accompanying position in the concerto and in the prominent role in Mozart's Symphony no. 29 in A major. The musicians communicated well across the registers and offered a dense, full-bodied sound in the third movement. The divided strings allowed for great transparency elsewhere which revealed minute coordination issues between the two violin parts in the opening movement and an occasional wobble in the horns, but it also allowed even minor melodic elements to be perceived in the permeable musical fabric. Particularly in the symphony, they set out at a brisk pace that even seemed to gain momentum in the course of the four movements and radiated youthful exuberance in magnificent virtuoso runs.

The orchestra's precise, committed playing also created a colourful backdrop to Say's Goethe Songs, his setting to music of five poems from the West-Eastern Divan in which Occident meets Orient. Nihan Inan Oral soared through the declamatory and arioso passages in complex, enthralling rhythms. While some of the lines seemed strangely disjointed and one would have wished for the poems to be printed in the programme, her voice connected with the fabric of the orchestra in a near-scenic and uninhibited presentation. She has a warm and pleasant instrument that bears strong reminiscence to the sound of a violin: soft and warm in the lower register, flexible and brilliant in fortes and her high range and a great match for Say's work that seemed to show his musical influences in a nutshell.

One could see him as an ambassador, promoting Western composers like Beethoven and Mozart in the East while including Eastern elements and instruments in his own compositions: while the traditional orchestral line-up and the occasional jazzy element establishes the West, the East is walking alongside it in driving, complex rhythms and the buzz of a prepared piano mimicking other string instruments. Say's Second Piano Concerto mirrors the journey along the ancient trading route called The Silk Road, beginning in Tibet, with a music that does not readily offer a melodic line to follow, yet in its communication of the solo instrument and the fortifying orchestra still creates a mesmerising undertow.

When the melody in octave parallels of the second movement (Mesopotamia) finally calm, one could hear the earthy tones played by the double-bass in the organ gallery. It's rock hard notes in the piano first draw a connection to the movement's title, Massaker (massacre), resembling a heartbeat, the strings resembling a slowly drawn breath. Again the performance of all musicians was engaging and captivating; Say blooming in his solo role, only giving one or two cues, and the orchestra shining with fresh and accurate music-making led by concertmaster Wojciech Garbowski. While the melodic writing in Silk Road often appears to be of a simpler facture, the entire work seemed to have an earthy quality which didn't address the analytical brain, didn't draw a line between East or West, but plucked some invisible string in the body of the listener and made them, for a few moments, swing in tune with the music.

****1