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CD of the Week – Fazil Say

By (November 28, 2012) No Comment

Fazil Say: Istanbul Symphony

Turkey’s most charismatic classical musician is in trouble back home. An atheist, uncomfortable with rising Islamist tides, Say retweeted a derisory comment last year and found himself prosecuted for ‘insulting the values of Moslems’ – accused, in effect, of the medieval crime of heresy. His case will be tried in February. Say has gone into exile.

A prolific pianist, widely recorded, Say is also an ambitious composer, rooted in the sounds and sights of his homeland. His symphony opens with a rush of waves, followed by a run of Mediterranean melismas. The movements are titled ‘nostalgia’, religious order’, ‘blue mosque,’ ‘merrily clad young ladies aboard the ferry to Princes Islands’, and so on.

To the post-modern listener, this may appears to be a leisurely travelogue in the manner of Saint-Saens and Elgar, east meets west in a four-star hotel. The energy is powerful and the noise made by the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra very loud, but the music arrives about 120 years too late, a cultural anachronism. Others, less aware of musical trends, may be charmed.

Less contentious is Herzafen, a concerto for ney (a kind of flute) and symphony orchestra. The throaty instrument adds a whispering authenticity and Burcu Karadag, the soloist, exerts a hypnotic attention. A German audience at the world premiere sound hugely enthusiastic. I wanted to hear it again, at once.

3 underplayed symphonies

Allan Pettersson’s 6th

A Swedish outcast, living on the poverty line, Pettersson is the most original Nordic symphonist after Sibelius and Nielsen. Here, he starts in darkness and feels his way, an unbroken hour later, to light. Few modern symphonists create or sustain so gripping an atmosphere, and Christian Lindberg’s performance with the Norrköping Symphony is by far the best on record. I have listened to it, end to end, five times.

Witold Lutoslawski’s 2nd

Trapped between Communist expectation and his own modernist inclinations, Lutoslawski walked a high wire in the nervous Sixties. His two-movement 2nd symphony is so jittery that he called the first section ‘hésitant’. It isn’t: Edward Garder conducts a commanding performance with the BBC Philharmonic. Luto’s cello concerto, written for Mstislav Rostropovich is, if anything, bleaker. Paul Watkins is the austere soloist.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s 19th

By 1985, when he wrote this symphony, the prolific Russian had reached his 142nd work and was repeating himself. There are some glorious passages in the 19th, many reminiscent of his friend Shotaskovich, and blazingly performed by the St Petersburg State Symphony, conductor Vladimir Lande. But the intensity does not match Weinberg’s Mahlerian 14th.

Norman Lebrecht is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other publications. He has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc.

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