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Beethoven: Sonatas/Say

Jed Distler

Artistic Quality:

Sound Quality:

A friend of mine once likened a particularly metronomic performance of Beethoven’s Appassionata to a man being pursued by hornets. I don’t know who’s pursuing Fazil Say in the first movement, but the pianist either sounds as if he’s fleeing the very same hornets or, most probably, an irate music critic. Say tears through the movement without modifying his fleet basic tempo, yet he somehow conveys the drama and disquiet implied by Beethoven’s frequent dynamic changes, abetted by added bass-note octaves (measures 130-33). However, the Andante con moto is not so much about a unified set of variations as it is about Fazil Say the interpretive graffiti artist. He shapes opening and closing theme statements in rhetorical brushstrokes with a few rolled chords thrown in for shock value.

Beethoven doesn’t mark any tempo change for the first variation, but that doesn’t stop Say from speeding up twice as fast and exaggerating the right-hand chords with a mincing staccato. Say then takes the Allegro ma non troppo at such a ridiculously fast, unyielding pace that you fear for his safety in the Presto coda. Surprise! The coda proceeds in exactly the same tempo, although Say manages to broaden those fortissimo half-note chords in a vulgar caricature of what Richter used to do.

While Say has the technique and the stamina to maintain the Waldstein first movement’s Allegro con brio at full tilt, he indulges in more cheap effects than the set designer of John Waters’ cult classic Pink Flamingos (blatant rushing, petulant accents, and so forth). He pedals through the Adagio molto’s rests, yet doesn’t take Beethoven’s long pedal marks seriously in the Rondo (besides adding bass octaves, Say plays the Prestissimo section’s octaves in loud staccato strokes, as opposed to the pianissimo legato Beethoven requests). In both movements Say speeds up and slows down to suit his own whims, and possibly bait unsophisticated listeners.

Similarly, his near-breakneck pace for The Tempest throws some of the repeated-note articulation out of whack, although the briskly (and, to my mind, trivially) dispatched Adagio boasts arresting textural differentiation. I can live with Say’s zippy Allegretto, but not with his downplaying Beethoven’s characteristic subito dynamics: after all, who wants Beethoven to sound like Chaminade? It’s a shame that Fazil Say’s dubious musical taste all too often thwarts his potential for great Beethoven playing.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Op. 57: Richter (RCA), Op. 53: Hungerford (Vanguard)

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN - Piano Sonatas No. 21 in C Op. 53 (”Waldstein”); No. 23 in F minor Op. 23 (“Appassionata”); & No. 17 in D minor Op. 31 No. 2 (“Tempest”)

    Soloists: Fazil Say (piano)

  • Record Label: Naïve - 98
  • Medium: CD

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