Bach, arr. Fazil Say – Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.17 in D minor, Op.31 no.2, ‘Tempest’
Mussorgsky, Pictures at an exhibition
Fazil Say (piano)
What a strange concert! First, Bach’s great Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 592, as arranged by Fazil Say, was cancelled, since, it was announced, he had needed to concentrate upon the other works during his preparation. Fair enough, but I soon began to wonder what that rehearsal had entailed. I am not in any sense implying a lack of preparation, but it had led to some highly unusual ideas for performance.
Having missed out on the first of the Bach transcriptions, our first port of call was the Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542. If I were to describe the transcription as hyper-Romantic, that would give some sense of its nature, but in another sense might mislead. For whilst there was assuredly nothing of the ‘authentic’ about this, it also stood at some remove from, say, the Bach transcriptions of Liszt and Busoni. It somehow managed less to sound Gothic than to suggest the glorious Technicolour of Stokowski’s orchestral transcriptions whilst remaining on the piano. There were times at which less would have been more, but it was undoubtedly impressive. The performance helped, of course, although there were odd aspects to that in itself. The fantasia opened rather quickly, and took a while to settle down: somewhat at odds with the nature of the transcription, I thought. The fugue, by contrast, suffered from an extremely deliberate speed – and this comes from a writer who admires Klemperer’s Bach to the skies. It was, of course, not simply a matter of speed: the deliberate quality was as much a product of Say’s laying of equal stress upon every note of the fugue’s subject. Both problems lessened as time went on, although light and shade tended to be sectional rather than phrased. There was a great deal of sustaining pedal, as one might expect in such a performance, and some thundering left-hand octaves. Whilst I am about as far from a purist concerning Bach as can be imagined, I am not sure that this Fantasia and Fugue really hit the mark.
If the Bach was ‘interesting’, then I do not know how to categorise the Beethoven ‘Tempest’ sonata. I do not think I have ever heard Beethoven sound less like Beethoven. Much of the Allegro sounded like Chopin in an especially vehement performance. There were, however, some truly exquisite recitative passages, in which the Ninth Symphony (and, intriguingly, late Liszt) loomed large. There were huge variations of tempo and, once again, plenty of thundering left hand passages. As for the Adagio and Allegretto, they often sounded as if they were a later nineteenth-century re-composition, ‘after Beethoven’. I often thought of Saint-Saëns, of all people. And yet… there was clearly conviction to what Say was doing. This was not playing to the gallery, not the feigned musicality of so many a mere virtuoso, and it was certainly more interesting than the interchangeable note-perfect, score-bound non-performances of so many competition winners. The pianist appeared to exhibit a sense of wonder in his music making, which counts for a lot. Say, also a composer, is evidently a highly creative artist, if no Beethoven. If one were to consider this as a performance rather than as Beethoven, one might conclude that it impressed, unlike so many of its kind. We do not need to rail so much against the excesses of pianistic tradition as Sir Donald Tovey did; there is far greater danger nowadays from lack of imagination. I must, however, admit that I was simply at a loss when it came to the throwaway ending.
That said, the Mussorgsky second half was quite a relief. From the outset, this sounded far more idiomatic. The performance was not without liberties, but they were fewer and more in keeping. (Say’s poking inside the piano may have been an exception, although, if it gained little, it equally did little harm, perhaps since it was restricted to a single instance. I assume that the intention was to suggest plucked orchestral strings.) The pianist’s palette sounded more appropriate, with some wonderful pitch black for ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle’ and a scintillating ‘Baba Yaga’. ‘The ballet of the unhatched chicks’ was simply mesmerising, and bells truly pealed during ‘The great gate of Kiev’. There was, however, some strange discontinuity during that final movement, overcome at the last, though it remained unclear what its purpose had been. All in all, though, this was a far more consistent performance.
Say performed two encores. The first was based upon Gershwin’s Summertime. Whether it was his own composition, someone else’s, or even improvised, I do not know, although I suspect it to have been his own fantasy. The compendious virtuoso displays deservedly excited the audience, and Say revealed more of a sense of delicacy than had been evident in much of the recital. I can only assume that the second encore was a composition of his own. It involved a great deal of poking inside the piano and a severe paucity of music. Whilst it was doubtless performed impeccably, I could make neither head nor tail of it. Still, it is surely far better to have a genuinely eccentric composer-performer – his demeanour often suggested that he might be attending a séance – than a bland robot-instrumentalist.