Described by Le Figaro as “a pianist of genius,” FazIl Say was born in Ankara, Turkey, in 1970 and completed his studies in Düsseldorf and Berlin. He has performed all over the world but has worked extensively in Germany—as an artist in residence for Hessischer Rundfunk (Frankfurt), at the Rheingau Music Festival, and in 2015/2016 at the Alte Oper Frankfurt. His recital at the Phillips includes a group of Chopin Nocturnes, Beethoven’s last Piano Sonata Op. 111, Mozart’s Sonata No. 11 in A Major (which includes the notorious Rondo alla Turca), and Say’s own Gezi Park 2: Sonata for Piano, a major new work commissioned by the Vienna Konzerthaus and first performed there by the composer in 2014.
FRYDERYK CHOPIN (1810-49)
Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72 No. 1, CT 126
Nocturne in C-sharp minor (“Lento con gran espressione”), CT 127
Nocturne in C minor, CT 128
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111
Maestoso - Allegro con brio ed appassionato
Arietta: Adagio molto semplice cantabile
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756-91)
Piano Sonata No. 11 in A Major ("Alla Turca"), K. 331
Tema con variazione
Menuetto & trio
FAZIL SAY (b. 1970)
Gezi Park 2 Sonata for Piano, Op. 52
With his extraordinary pianistic talents, Fazıl Say has been reaching audiences and critics alike for more than 25 years, in a way that has become rare in the increasingly materialistic and elaborately organized classical music world. Concerts with Say are something different. They are more direct, open, and exciting; in short, they go straight to the heart. Which is exactly what the composer Aribert Reimann thought in 1986 when, during a visit to Ankara, had the opportunity to appreciate the playing of the then 16-year-old pianist. He immediately asked the American pianist David Levine, who was accompanying him on the trip, to come to the city’s conservatory, using the now much-quoted words: “You absolutely must hear him, this boy plays like a devil.”
Say had his first piano lessons with Mithat Fenmen, who had himself studied with Alfred Cortot in Paris. Perhaps sensing just how talented his pupil was, Fenmen asked the boy to improvise every day on themes to do with his daily life before going on to complete his essential piano exercises and studies. This contact with free creative processes and forms is seen as the source of the immense improvisatory talent and the aesthetic outlook that make Say the pianist and composer he is today. He has been commissioned to write music for, among others, the Salzburg Festival, WDR, Dortmund Konzerthaus, Schleswig-Holstein, and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern festivals. His work includes compositions for solo keyboard, chamber music, as well as solo concertos and large-scale orchestral works.
From 1987 onwards, Say fine-tuned his skills as a classical pianist with David Levine, first at the Musikhochschule Robert Schumann in Düsseldorf and later in Berlin. In addition, he regularly attended master classes with Menahem Pressler. His outstanding technique very quickly enabled him to master the so-called warhorses of repertoire with masterful ease. It is precisely this blend of refinement (in Bach, Haydn, and Mozart) and virtuosic brilliance in the works of Liszt, Mussorgsky, and Beethoven that gained him victory at the New York Young Concert Artists International Competition in 1994. Since then he has played with all of the renowned American and European orchestras, including numerous leading conductors, building up a multifaceted repertoire ranging from Bach, through the Viennese classics and Romantics, right up to contemporary music, including his own piano compositions.
Guest appearances have taken Say to countless countries on all five continents; Le Figaro called him “a genius.” He also performs chamber music regularly: for many years he was part of a fantastic duo with the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja. Other notable collaborators include Maxim Vengerov, the Minetti Quartet, Nicolas Altstaedt, and Marianne Crebassa.
From 2005-10, he was Artist-in-Residence at the Dortmund Konzerthaus; during the 2010/2011 season he held the same position at the Berlin Konzerthaus. Say was also a focal point of the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival in the summer of 2011. There have been further residencies and Say festivals in Paris, Tokyo, Meran, Hamburg, and Istanbul. During the 2012/2013 season Say was Artist-in-Residence at the Hessischer Rundfunk in Frankfurt am Main and at the Rheingau Musik Festival 2013, where he was awarded the Rheingau Musik Preis. In April 2015, Say gave a successful concert with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall that was followed by an extensive European tour. In 2014 he was the Artist-in-Residence at the Bodenseefestival, where he played 14 concerts. During their 2015/2016 season the Alte Oper Frankfurt and the Zürcher Kammerorchester invited him to be their Artist-in-Residence. Say’s current residency is with the Festival der Nationen in Bad Wörishofen.
In December 2016, Say was awarded the International Beethoven Prize for Human Rights, Peace, Freedom, Poverty Reduction, and Inclusion, in Bonn. In the autumn of 2017, he was awarded the Music Prize of the city of Duisburg.
His recordings of works by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Gershwin, and Stravinsky have been highly praised by critics and won several prizes, including three ECHO Klassik Awards. In 2014, his recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (with hr-Sinfonieorchester and conductor, Gianandrea Noseda) and Beethoven’s Sonatas Op. 111 and Op. 27/2 "Moonlight" was released, as well as the album Say plays Say, featuring his compositions for piano. Since 2016, Say has been an exclusive Warner Classics artist. In the autumn of 2016, his recording of all of Mozart sonatas was released on the label, for which, in 2017, Say received his fourth ECHO Klassik award. Together with Nicolas Altstaedt, he recorded the album 4 Cities (2017). In autumn 2017 Warner Classics will release Nocturnes by Frédéric Chopin and the album Secrets, featuring French songs which he recorded together with Marianne Crebassa.
Frédéric Chopin, Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72 No. 1, CT 126
Nocturne in C-sharp minor ("Lento con gran espressione"), CT 127
Nocturne in C minor, CT 128
In 1812, the Irish composer John Field began publishing piano works called “nocturnes” (characterized as a song-like composition having its roots in vocal music, with a long melodic line over an undulating accompaniment). Legend has it that when Chopin played Field’s pieces, he would add touches of his own to give them greater melodic and harmonic interest. While Field is remembered as the “Father of the Nocturne,” it was Chopin who took the form and used it for some of his most intimate and serious musical thoughts. While most of Chopin’s Nocturnes were published during his lifetime, the three in this concert were all issued posthumously. The dating of the Nocturne in E minor is uncertain. Originally believed to have been an early work, composed in the late 1820s, others have speculated that it may have been written at the end of his life—a hypothesis supported by Liszt’s remark that Chopin’s last nocturne was still in manuscript when he died. The Nocturne in C-sharp minor (not to be confused with the Nocturne Op. 27 No. 1 in the same key) was written for Chopin’s sister in 1830 and is unusual among his works for including self-quotations: from the Piano Concerto No. 2 (first and last movements) and from the song Życzenie. The Nocturne in C minor was first published in 1938 and again its dating is uncertain. Two sketches in Chopin’s hand survive, as does a complete autograph manuscript, and while the work may date from the end of Chopin’s life, it has also been suggested that it could have been written in 1837. What stands out is the simple nobility of its melody.
Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111
This last Sonata in Beethoven’s late trilogy (comprising Op. 109, Op. 110 and Op. 111) was composed in 1821–22, straight after the Sonata Op. 110, and was dedicated to his pupil and patron Archduke Rudolph—familiar as the dedicatee of the “Archduke” Trio, and also the person to whom Beethoven inscribed the Missa solemnis (which was interrupted to compose the three late piano sonatas). Op. 111 is in two movements, the first a turbulent and tempestuous Allegro preceded by a dramatic introduction notable for its extensive use of diminished seventh chords. The driving intensity of the main Allegro finds a moment of repose with the arrival of the second theme, in A-flat Major. At the end of the movement it seems that all rage has been spent as the music works towards a serene pianissimo conclusion in C Major. The second movement is based on a hymn-like theme heard at the start of the movement and treated to an astonishing varied series of variations and a coda drenched in trills that seem to take the music to a strange, remote and wonderful expressive world. Alfred Brendel has said of this movement that “perhaps nowhere else in piano literature does mystical experience feel so immediately close at hand.”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Piano Sonata in A Major (“Alla Turca”), K. 331
Originally published by the Viennese firm of Artaria in 1784 as one of “Three Sonatas for the Harpsichord or Pianoforte,” the Sonata in A Major was most likely composed in 1783. In place of a customary sonata-form Allegro, the first movement is a set of variations on a gently lilting theme—an unusual way to start an instrumental sonata in the late 18th century—in the home key of A Major, apart from the third variation which is in A minor. More than a century later, this alluring theme was used in 1914 as the basis for Max Reger’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Mozart for orchestra—but Mozart himself uses the greatest ingenuity to explore the possibilities of his theme, including a particularly beautiful Adagio before the sixth and last variation, an Allegro. The Minuet that follows is also in A Major, with a central Trio section in D Major. Both are full of subtle melodic inflections that transcend the simplicity of the form. The finale is the famous Rondo “Alla Turca,” inspired by the music of Turkish janissary bands that enjoyed great popularity in Vienna at the time (and on which Mozart also drew in his opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail). The main key of this movement—A minor—was another surprising choice for the time, but as this endlessly inventive Rondo develops, the key turns increasingly towards A Major, ending with two joyfully optimistic chords.
One of the most remarkable musical discoveries of the twenty-first century concerns this Sonata. Until 2014, the only known manuscript for this work in Mozart’s hand was the last page of the “Alla Turca.” That year Balázs Mikusi, Head of the Music the National Széchényi Library in Budapest, found most of the rest of Mozart’s long-missing manuscript in a folder of unindentified fragments. This remarkable find was reported in the New York Times and The Guardian at the time, and on September 26, 2014, the work was performed from this manuscript (which differs in some details from printed editions) by Zoltán Kocsis on a copy of Mozart’s piano.
Fazıl Say, Gezi Park 2: Sonata for Piano, Op. 52
Say’s first piano teacher, Mithat Fenmen (a pupil of Alfred Cortot) encouraged him to improvise on themes to do with his everyday life and it was this formative engagement with improvisation that set him on a path in which composition (and a profound interest in jazz) developed alongside Say’s studies as a concert pianist. In 1983 he began studies at the State Conservatory in Ankara, moving to Germany in 1987 where he was encouraged by the composer Aribert Reimann and pursued advanced piano studies with David Levine. By the early 1990s, his compositions were starting to attract attention. His works for solo piano from this period include music with an overtly Turkish inspiration (such as the “Elegy for Old Istanbul” from the Fantasy Pieces of 1993) alongside others that explore the possibilities of reworking earlier music: Alla Turca Jazz (1993) based on Mozart’s Sonata K. 331, and Paganini Jazz (1995) taking Paganini’s famous Caprice No. 24 as the starting point for a piece in the style of modern jazz. Say also composed cadenzas for piano concertos by Mozart.
Say has composed a trilogy of works relating to the protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013: Gezi Park 1 is a concerto for two pianos and orchestra first performed in Hannover on October 24, 2013 and Gezi Park 3 is a ballad for mezzo-soprano, piano, and string orchestra, given its premiere in Bremen on September 2, 2014. The central work in this trilogy, Gezi Park 2, is a piano sonata and was written for the Vienna Konzerthausgesellschaft and first performed in the Vienna Konzerthaus on May 9, 2014 by the composer. Gezi Park, next to Taksim Square in central Istanbul became a focal point for those protesting against the erosion of personal and religious freedoms by the Erdoğan government which was perceived as increasingly authoritarian. The deeply personal nature of Say’s work is particularly evident in the third movement, On the Killing of the Innocent Child Berkin Elvan. Berkin Elvan was a teenage boy who went out to buy bread for his family in June 2013 and was hit on the head by a tear-gas canister fired by police during the Gezi protests. After months in a coma, he died on March 11, 2014, provoking further protests around the world. The response of Prime Minister Erdoğan was to claim that the boy was a “member of a terrorist organization,” on the pretext that he was wearing a head scarf. The Sonata is a courageous artistic response to the Gezi Park protests, a musical reflection on the events in Istanbul, on the slogans heard at the time, and, finally, on the spirit of hope that lay behind this turbulent time. Say’s Sonata is raw, powerful, and emotional—a major work in its own right, enriched by the extraordinary events that inspired it.
Nigel Simeone, 2018