Friday, October 14, 2016

Fazil Say Takes an Innovative Approach to the Canon of Mozart Piano Sonatas

Pianist and composer Fazil Say has been recording with Warner Classics for almost two decades. One week from today both he and Warner will celebrate the launch of a new contract with a major release, a six-CD set of all of the piano sonatas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Appropriately enough, the recording sessions were held during the second half of 2014 and the first half of 2015 in the Great Hall of the Mozarteum University of Salzburg in Austria.

There is a good chance that many who have decided to read this article already have an album of all of the Mozart piano sonatas played by the same pianist. Some may even have a collection that covers all of Mozart’s solo piano music (even the juvenilia). Such readers are probably used to seeing all eighteen of these sonatas fit onto five CDs with room to spare for the K. 475 C minor fantasia, which is often played as an “overture” to the K. 457 sonata in C minor. (For those who have an older edition, such as the one prepared by Nathan Broder for Theodore Presser Company, with nineteen sonatas, K. 547a in F major is not included in the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe.)

The reason for Say requiring an additional disc is that he wanted to partition the sonatas, for the most part, by key. Thus CD 2 has the four sonatas in C major, followed by the three F major sonatas on CD 3, the three D major sonatas on CD 4, and the three B-flat major sonatas on CD 5. CD 1 is the “A” CD, beginning with K. 331 in A major, followed by K. 310 in A minor. Given that the final (“Alla Turca”) movement of K. 331 goes back and forth between A minor and A major, this makes for a sensible coupling. Finally, CD 6 has K. 457 with its K. 475 “overture,” along with the remaining sonatas, K. 282 in E-flat major and K. 283 in G major.

To add another personal touch to the collection, Say has also provided descriptive titles for all of the sonatas, beginning by escalating the “Alla Turca” movement title to the title of the whole K. 331 sonata. These titles are strictly subjective judgements on Say’s part, many are anachronistic, and purists are likely to find them distracting. The good news is that these titles only appear on the inner pages of the accompanying booklet and therefore do not distract listers whose only interest lies in the track listings.

All this, however, should be taken as nothing more than icing. What about the cake itself? What sort of Mozart pianist is Say?

First of all, he is one that prefers a modern instrument to a historical one. The good news is that his command of such an instrument serves him well with respect to both the clarity of the notes as Mozart wrote them (and, presumably, as the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe editors sanctioned them) and the ability to endow expressive shape to his phrases. Whether or not any listener is willing to accept his phrasing is a matter of personal taste. More important is that, once he has decided what he wants to say, he says it clearly. To continue the metaphor of the last paragraph, the result is a cake with the lightness of angel food; and, where these sonatas are concerned, that is a rhetorical stance that is far preferable to that of sugar-saturated devil’s food!

As a result, from a purely personal point of view, this is a collection that I am likely to revisit. I may even return to it more frequently than I do to some of my fortepiano recordings. Fortunately, I live in a city in which it is not particularly difficult to find these sonatas performed in recital; and an actual performance will always trump any of my recorded resources!

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