Imogen Cooper - Wigmore Hall, 1.00pm 23 June 2008
Fazil Say - Wigmore Hall, 7.30pm 23 June 2008
One day, two pianists. First up was Imogen Cooper, in one of the Wigmore Hall's bargain (£10!) Monday lunchtime recitals, broadcast live on Radio 3 (though these days the audience in the hall might be bigger than the one on the little box).
In boho-chic gunmetal silk smock floating over loose black trousers she looked the part. But as soon as she started playing, it was clear something wasn't quite right. It was as ever a meticulous and controlled performance. Ms Cooper's fingers would never dare disobey her. But her laboured pace, monotonous dynamics and spectacularly overheld sustaining pedal suggested her mind was on matters other than Schubert. The four pieces, so different in shape and mood, blurred into one big Schubert soup. The eleven brief Bartók Bagatelles, spare-textured folk-influenced early works, suffered less. The approach was just as unvaried, but at least the foot came off the pedal here to expose delicately articulated melodic trails. The harmonic and rhythmic similarities between these pieces and the closing Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody were deftly drawn out, but the Liszt too suffered from an excess of subtlety.
Bach French Suite No. 6 in E BWV817
Bach/Say Passacaglia BWV582
Mozart Piano Sonata in A K. 331
Beethoven Piano Sonata in D minor Op. 31 No. 2 ‘The Tempest’; Piano Sonata in F minor Op. 57 ‘Appassionata’
Excessive subtlety is not an accusation you could level at the pianist on the evening shift, Fazil Say. Wringing every last drop of expressive potential out of the piano, he made Bach sound like Beethoven and Beethoven sound like Bach. All while looking oddly like Oscar Wilde (right) with his floppy fringe and loose black velvet Chinese jacket.
Say's extreme licence with tempo and rubato won't have pleased the purists, but Bach is resilient to a surprising variety of musical 'crimes' and the hyper-romantic intepretation was energising and refreshing. Incidentally, and oddly, his own transcription of Bach's (organ) Passacaglia was the only piece Say required a score for.
Clearly not everyone was convinced by Say, and there were more than the usual number of half time grumbles and departures - musical specifics and Say's flamboyant grunting and hair-tossing were both criticised. But whatever anyone's opinion on these, it is clear Say is a serious musician whose presentation is integral to his performance, and not simply a showman indulging in lowest common denominator theatrics.
By contrast to the Bach, his Beethoven had a quickfire clockwork precision. While there was little sense of the subliminal orchestral textures that tug at Beethoven's sonatas, Say's sheer exuberance was winning. A large part of the audience seemed to be made up of Say partisans rather than Wigmore regulars, but the enthusiasm of the final applause seemed to be pretty much general.
He finished the evening with an inspired version of Gershwin's Summertime that swept the keyboard from end to end. But his first encore was his own composition, Black Earth, which juxtaposes some cheesy sub-Michel Legrand jazz noodling with some far more interesting Turkish-inspired passages, where he reached one hand inside the piano to hold the dampers in place while he thrashed out the tune on the keys with the other. The resulting hollow plucked sound revealed the very essence of the piano - a row of metal wires whacked with wooden sticks.
Here's a video of Fazil Say playing Black Earth:
And just to show how different his approach is, here's Fazil Say playing the last movement of Beethoven's Tempest sonata (quite a bit faster than he played it at the Wigmore Hall, and on a more 'pingy' instrument):
compared with Wilhelm Kempff's version of the same: