Playing like the devil

Fazil Say

Love him or loathe him, Fazil Say, the revolutionary young Turkish pianist and composer, is blowing up a storm on the concert platforms of Europe. Christian Tyler met a musician who is not afraid to live dangerously

  • Fazil Say at the keys: a passionate Asiatic melancholy

Music is a world language. It flows across frontiers. But in the narrower world of European classical music, an artist like Fazıl Say can still feel an outsider. The 34-year-old pianist and composer from Anatolia has reached the front rank of performers. However, like the ‘young Turks’ of a century ago, Say (pronounced sigh) brings a whiff of revolutionary grapeshot to his playing; and that gets him into trouble with the arbiters of old European style.

There is a nice paradox in this. For Fazıl Say is, so to speak, returning the compliment that European composers formerly paid to Turkish exoticism. Mozart did it with his opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), and was following the fashion for Ottoman military music when he penned the famous alla Turca rondo for his piano sonata in A major, K331 – a Say speciality.

“People don’t like hearing you play Mozart in a different way,” said the pianist when I met him in London. “For example, I play the alla Turca with a strong left hand. But then I know what a Turkish military band sounds like.” Europeans, he added, could be too quick to lay down the law.

I met Fazıl Say before the first of two recitals he gave recently at the Barbican with the virtuoso Russian violinist Maxim Vengerov. Hearing them together, the Russian and the Turk, playing Mozart and Brahms, I thought how true to the character of each composer these adoptive Europeans sounded. But the reviewer of The Times was scathing about Say’s accompaniment.

The controversy he creates (at least among professional critics) is not due to any lack of skill – all agree he is a formidable pianist. It may not even be his individualistic interpretations. What critics find hard to overlook is that Say is also a noted jazz player and arranger, as well as a composer of Turkish-influenced modern music. Versatility can be a dangerous thing.

Say was chosen to play Gershwin, including his own arrangements, at a centenary concert of the composer’s music in New York. He acknowledges debts to Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson and Keith Jarrett (the latter two classically trained), and he has played at most of the big jazz festivals. Although he will do jazz encores at classical concerts (Liszt’s La Campanella in the style of Art Tatum, or jazzed-up Paganini, even the alla Turca), he generally keeps the two streams apart. “Classical music is like a room, a salon, with a closed door,” he said. “They won’t open the door to just anybody and it’s a risky thing for a classical musician to be seen playing jazz. It puts you under the spotlight.”

Fazıl Say started improvising as a three-year-old, first on a toy electronic keyboard, then on the piano. “I could play almost anything by ear,” he recalled. The family lived in the Gazi Osman Pasha district of Ankara, a more mixed area then than it is today. When he was four, Say’s parents divorced and he was brought up by his father, a writer and musicologist. At five he began piano lessons with a “wonderful” teacher, who encouraged him in his childish compositions and taught him for free. At six he was reading biographies of Mozart and Beethoven, whom he took as role models. By the age of fifteen he was at the Ankara State Conservatory and performing the Brahms Paganini Variations. There he was spotted by David Levine, from the Robert Schumann Institute, who remarked “This boy plays like the devil!” and helped arrange a scholarship for him in Germany.

The young Turk’s compositions declare his influences. A passionate Asiatic melancholy (as in Black Earth for piano solo) and traditional Turkish sonorities (Silence of Anatolia) are contrasted with driving, syncopated rhythms (Silk Road concerto) which owe a lot to Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein and the percussive piano of Béla Bartók. Apart from arrangements and concert pieces, he has written three piano concertos and two oratorios, is working on a ballet score and is planning another oratorio – for 400 performers and an Ottoman military band.

Composing cannot be a full-time job, because it does not pay, and he enjoys performing so much: 110 concerts a year. “I really need this sort of pressure,” he said. “But I still compose in hotel rooms, at airports, or at home in Istanbul.”

Then there is recording. He has made discs of Mozart, Bach, Gershwin, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Stravinsky – and himself. Next, he is due to record the three Brahms violin sonatas with Vengerov.

You will find Say’s robust way with music either invigorating (as I do), or maddening. There is no third way. He is an individualist, working in what he calls “the new cultural synthesis”, where there is no longer any ‘German’ music, nor ‘French’ music. But there is still Turkish music, and Fazıl Say is busy bringing it to European ears.

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