November 24, 2005


Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 17 (“Tempest”), 21 (“Waldstein”) and 23 (“Appassionata”). Fazil Say, piano. Naïve. $16.99.

     Turkish pianist/composer Fazil Say has superb technique when his ego doesn’t get in the way.  He gives these Beethoven sonatas capital-R Romantic performances, with big sound and frequent rubato.  These are not readings necessarily appropriate to the period in which the sonatas were written, but they are almost always emotionally convincing.

     The C Minor “Tempest,” op. 31, no. 2, gets an emotional opening movement in which the slow sections are almost Chopinesque.  The second movement is pleasant enough, but curiously uninvolving.  The third is bright, with all lines in both hands clear: Say here combines a delicate touch with plenty of power when needed.

     Say gives the C Major “Waldstein,” op. 53, a fast, dramatic, well-articulated opening movement with extreme delicacy of touch.  Abetted by Naïve’s excellent sound, Say does a superb job here and in all these sonatas of making every note audible, even in the fastest runs.  This sonata’s brief second movement comes across as a gentle, quiet interlude.  The finale is a trifle brusque at first, then becomes steadily more involving despite a little too much rubato.  The coda is speedy, delicate, and quite impressively played.

     Sonata No. 23 in F Minor got the name “Appassionata” not from Beethoven but from a publisher who issued an edition 11 years after the composer’s death.  Nevertheless, the name fits this work exceptionally well, and Say’s style does, too: this is the best performance on the CD.  Say presents a highly dramatic opening to the first movement, then plays as if every note in every run is crucial to the emotional impact of the work.  The coda is exceptional, subsiding into quiet, then exploding with great bursts of sound before dying away.  The second movement then begins very softly, its gentle rhythms building inexorably to the start of the finale, which is taken at a very fast pace and played as high drama.  Say balances the notes in the left and right hands as if he were playing Liszt – a most effective approach, if not one entirely faithful to Beethoven’s style.  The slowdown near the end of the movement comes across as a sigh, as if there is nowhere else to go – but then comes the wonderful concluding burst of forward motion.  This could have been a great coda had Say not overdone the rubato in the two repeated chords that are designed to emphasize the drama of the ending, not interfere with it.

     These readings will not be to everyone’s taste, but they are fresh and memorable, representing an unusual and mostly successful approach to the music.  Naïve’s packaging is, as usual, some of the most attractive in the industry – a nice bonus.  But Richard Millet’s booklet essay, “A Music Beyond All Sentimentality,” is one of the silliest pieces of artsy, self-important, pseudo-academic excess attached to a classical recording in years – a sure turnoff for people not already in love with these marvelous sonatas.

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