White critic savages pianist of color over expressive liberties and not toeing the line of Originalism, referring to his “fashionable mannerisms” of the Living Beethoven as ‘shock and awe’.
Or, 'Distler Shanks Say Over Beethoven Gone Bad.
(Trending #3 topic on Twitter yesterday (6/18): ‘Beethoven was Black’. Not kidding.)
<< Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas - Fazil Say
By Jed Distler
In the booklet notes accompanying Fazıl Say’s Beethoven sonata cycle, the pianist writes: ‘As I work I make annotations above the music using some 300 different coloured pens. Sometimes I write out the music itself with coloured pens, using a different kind of mathematics. When I start to sense an impetus, a feeling that I can do anything I want with the music, I call that the “equilibrium”. This equilibrium announces “I’m here”.’
The self-absorbed tone of this paragraph extends to Say’s Beethoven interpretations. They generally evoke an alternative reality where forte means piano, where legato means détaché, where primary melodies are upstaged by secondary bass lines and so forth. A key component of Say’s communicative modus operandi concerns his propensity for once taboo yet newly fashionable mannerisms such as arpeggiating chords at will and desynchronising the hands. Granted, András Schiff also does this throughout his own Beethoven cycle, yet with far more specificity, purposefulness and discretion. By contrast, Say’s effect-mongering undermines the stark dynamic contrasts and harmonic tension at the opening of Op 90, while allowing the well-balanced part-writing in Op 101’s first movement to aimlessly wilt. Perhaps Op 49 No 1’s first movement reveals Say’s grandiloquence at its most pretentious and inflated. And notwithstanding his impressive technical sheen, he sometimes overpedals, as in Op 78’s Allegro vivace and Op 101’s march: here the younger Claudio Arrau’s amazing balances and mega-secure leaps in the latter surpass Say’s slightly flustered execution.
Furthermore, Say’s tempo choices often miss or ignore Beethoven’s point. Notice, for example, how Say parses Op 27 No 1’s introduction with the same flippant insensitivity he brings to Op 10 No 3’s harrowing slow movement, yet the pianist neutralises the middle section’s sudden dramatic outburst, much in the way he underplays Op 10 No 1’s relentless finale. He pushes Op 28’s opening Allegro to the point where the right-hand runs have no breathing room, in contrast to the dragging Andante. He favours conservative tempos in the Hammerklavier Sonata’s outer movements and delivers a rather heavy-handed and foursquare Scherzo that flattens out the Trio section’s cross-rhythms. In the great Adagio sostenuto, Say’s pianism ravishes and seduces, yet I take issue with the pianist’s aesthetic premise; particularly in how rhapsodic speeding up and slowing down dissipates the dramatic momentum that Beethoven constructs by way of his gradually expanding textural terrain and carefully scaled dynamics.
As with his earlier Appassionata recording (Naïve), Say continues to take the Allegro ma non troppo finale so unyieldingly fast that you fear for his safety in the Presto coda. But no worries: Say doesn’t accelerate into the coda, he simply plays it at the same tempo! In contrast to his banged-out earlier Op 111, Say contains himself within a quieter framework, yet still dispatches the Arietta’s third variation too quickly for the dotted rhythms to clearly and distinctly register; Pollini’s late-1970s studio version remains the paradigm.
Other interpretations toe a fine line between unorthodoxy and vulgarity, sometimes within the same sonata, or even in the same movement. Some listeners may find Op 2 No 2’s finale glib and fatuous but I warm to Say’s businesslike demeanour and the way he resists taking the main theme’s last three notes for a swan dive (an annoying habit among pianists). Op 10 No 2’s first movement strives too hard for effect but Say shades the finale’s staccatos with imagination and variety. The concluding movements of Op 7 and the Pathétique have a directness and flow that compensate for Say’s fussy detailing elsewhere.
Following a lovely and straightforward presentation of Op 26’s first-movement theme and first variation, Say reverts to ugly and machine-like mode for Var 2 and trivialises the minore Var 4’s anguish with exaggeratingly detached articulation. The toccata-like Allegro finale’s carefully balanced linear interplay makes up for Say’s slow and static Funeral March.
Similarly, the staccato chords in Op 14 No 2’s Andante emerge like separate, overwrought entities, whereas the outer movements’ energised and sophisticated phrasing channel Say’s creativity positively. The pianist’s Moonlight Sonata vastly improves upon its predecessor. Here Say makes a compellingly sustained and concentrated case for taking the Adagio almost as slowly as in Solomon’s famously protracted interpretation. Perhaps Op 22’s inherent humour absorbs Say’s affettuoso aesthetic more readily than in most of the other sonatas; listen to the witty left-hand accentuations in the Allegro con brio’s second theme or the Menuetto’s dynamic gradations, and you may well agree.
Eventually the initial shock and awe subsides, and Say’s titillating expressive touches wind up sounding as predictable as the vocal groans, grunts and grimaces accompanying nearly every crescendo. The net result is a highly calculated and calibrated pianism that draws more attention to Fazıl Say than to the composer he purports to serve with 300 pens at the ready. >>