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Beethoven’s symbolic significance is an inextricable part of his music. The theme of freedom in Fidelio and the Ninth Symphony, among other works, resonates deeply with performers and listeners alike.

In 2016, the Turkish pianist Fazil Say (born in 1970) was awarded an International Beethoven Prize. That same year, his conviction by an Istanbul court for ‘publicly denigrating the religious values of a section of the population’ for his postings on Twitter was definitively overturned, and Say was acquitted of blasphemy charges.

Decades earlier, his father, the musicologist Ahmet Say, was jailed repeatedly for opposing a Turkish military coup. In Turkey, where poets, journalists and others are still imprisoned for speaking against regimes, Beethoven’s association with liberty is especially cherished.

Speaking to Der Spiegel in 2008, Say summarized the increasingly repressive atmosphere in his homeland by wondering about the future: ‘Will I still be able to play Beethoven?’

Despite this intense identification, Say received critical brickbats for his 2005 CD of selected Beethoven sonatas (Naïve V5016). Lapses in taste included a tendency to aspire to an automaton-like hyper-velocity, with intermittent keyboard banging.

This new set, recorded in 2018-2019, avoids some of these flaws. Say’s renditions are generally strongest, because best behaved, in the early Haydnesque sonatas. Indeed, Say’s 2007 album of Haydn sonatas (Naïve V5070) remains among his more notable releases.

Beethoven’s Sonata No 1 in F minor is dispatched in a courtly, civilised manner. This and the Sonata No 2 in A major are among the highlights of the set, where vitality does not lead to exceeding stylistic limits, and excessive percussive effects are avoided.

By Sonata No 4 in E-flat major, however, crashing, bashing and loud singing become obtrusive. Say has cited Glenn Gould as an early influence, but he transforms piano sonatas into vocal works even more than the eccentric Canadian.

A straightforward version of the Sonata No 10 in G major captures an aptly grotesque melodic line in the final movement, marked Scherzo: Allegro assai. The Funeral March Sonata No 12 in A-flat major features ardent lyrical playing.

The Waldstein Sonata in C major Op 53 responds well to Say’s approach, possibly because its hyperactive beginning corresponds to an emotional urgency that he identifies with Beethoven. Some of the delicacy applied to the earlier sonatas is retained, without sacrificing the visceral dynamism that Say’s fans relish.

Even here, however, cacophony intrudes in the picture. The opening of the Moonlight Sonata No 14 in C-sharp minor is sluggish and dogged, and the final movement, marked Presto agitato, is rife with slamming noises, as is the Appassionata Sonata in F minor Op 57.

Sonata No 15 in D major (Pastoral) conveys a certain bonhomie, but as elsewhere in this project, nary a smile is communicated. Even where a glint of humour might be expected, as in the Cuckoo Sonata in G major Op 79, there is uninterrupted earnestness instead.

The final movement of the Sonata in E-flat major Op 81a (Les Adieux), marked Vivacissamente, is played truculently. As a farewell, it resembles an obstreperous houseguest who breaks all the crockery before departing.

An overall absence of aesthetic superego may be heard in these performances. As a young student, Say lost his major keyboard mentors prematurely. His compatriot Mithat Fenmen (1916-1982) died suddenly when Say was 11, and the American David Levine (1949-1993) perished not long after teaching Say in Düsseldorf.

While admirers may relish a pianist’s histrionics unrestrained by wiser counsel, it may lead to vaingloriousness. In booklet notes for this release, Say announces that with these sonatas, he intended to ‘give the world a great gift… [and] create one of the greatest interpretations of one of the greatest composers. I hoped to give future generations, piano students and young undergraduates, renditions that would be among the most important “reference” recordings of the 21st century.’

Doubts are raised about Say’s appreciation of past references when he cites an ‘edition by the famous pianist Arthur (sic) Schnabel, featuring his own annotations. [Schnabel] was one of the first to record Beethoven’s sonatas, and I learned a lot from him.’

Spelling Artur Schnabel’s first name wrong in the original Turkish language version of the notes – an error repeated here in all translations provided of the notes, including in German – is a minor flaw.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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