Fazil Say Plays Say

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Fazil Say has established himself as one of the leading pianists and composers of his generation, but his multifaceted talent has sometimes left critics as perplexed as audiences are thrilled. He’s a hard man to categorise!

Say is equally at home performing and recoding the complete Sonatas of Mozart (released by Warner Classics in 2016 and available here) as he is when playing his own highly distinctive and imaginative compositions. It is the latter which in my view confirm Say’s place in the upper echelons of the musical firmament, however. I love pieces such as the scintillating 1001 Nights in the Harem (a four-movement Violin Concerto), and the Hezarfen Concerto for Ney and Orchestra.

These have recently been joined on the top shelf by the stunning Troy Sonata, a near-40-minute solo piano work in ten movements, included as the centrepiece of his latest release, Fazil Say plays Say.

Say’s music has a vivid cinematic approach to storytelling, and draws on a smorgasbord of influences, from late Romanticism through to experimental modernism, while incorporating the colours of modern jazz: all unmistakably and decisively shot through with the spirit and culture of his native Turkey.

It makes for a unique and intoxicating blend with which, like his greatest composing forebears, Say’s personal voice emerges from an accomplished fusion of musical reference points.

Fazil Say Plays Say brings together a thrilling selection of Say’s most recent (and I believe finest) solo piano works. It’s an easy choice for Recording of the Month

The Troy Sonata

Fazil Say Plays Say showcases three works:

  • Troy Sonata Op.78
  • The Moving Mansion (Yürüyen Köşk) Op.72a “Hommage to Atatürk”
  • Art of Piano Op.66, nos. 2 and 3.
photography: Asli Girgin

The major work here without question is the Troy Sonata, a gargantuan piece which delights and astonishes in equal measure. Clocking in at 37’52”, this colossal piano work has ten movements which combine to retell the great Homeric epic of the siege of Troy.

Commissioned by the municipality of Çanakkale and premiered on 9th August 2018, reportedly in front of an audience numbering tens of thousands, the Troy Sonata has subsequently taken centre state in Say’s recital programmes around the world, and understandably so.

There really is no doubt in my mind that the Troy Sonata is a significant solo piano work for our time. Typical of its composer, the work embraces a varied contemporary palette of compositional and performance techniques, ear-catchingly including playing inside the piano. Say transitions with ease between brutal, rhythmically empowered dissonance to lyrical jazz voicing and meandering melodicity.

This is music which would make a compelling soundtrack, but equally stands alone, and conveys Homer’s story with suitably epic conviction.

The ten movements are as follows:

  • Bard Recounts, Homer
  • Aegean Winds
  • Heroes of Troy
  • Sparta
  • Helen, Love
  • Troy
  • Achilles
  • The War
  • Trojan Horse
  • Epilogue

Thematically, the music is bound together by a series of recurring leitmotifs, representing Destiny, Menelaus, Paris, Agamemnon, Heroism, and so on. Some of these have a similar melodic or rhythmic contour (for example Homer, Helen, Troy) adding to a sense of structural integrity and melodic development which places this work more firmly in the Sonata tradition.

The Epic Unfolds…

Homer; The Bard Recounts opens the work with a mournful motif depicting the storyteller with heavy heart as he begins to unburden his saga. The tension soon mounts, delicious accompanying jazz harmonies giving way to darker, yearning chord clusters which eloquently underscore a grief-stricken portrayal of fallen Troy. And so the story begins…

Aegean Winds emerges as a delicate and impressionistic evocation of the sea voyage to Troy, but as wind and waves swell we are introduced to the Anxiety motif which will reappear throughout the sonata.

Heroes of Troy is the best pianistic depiction of action heroes that I’ve encountered, its fervent syncopations never loosening their grip, while Sparta begins as a more tranquil, if sinister, interlude. It’s here that we meet the Agamemnon motif, which utilises extended techniques within the instrument itself suggestive both of his fearsome power and fragmenting mental state.

The fifth section, Helen; Love expectedly delivers some of the sonata’s most lyrical and melodic moments. The style here reveals the influence of modern jazz pianists from Herbie Hancock to Keith Jarrett, but the piece disintegrates into a return of the Aegean Winds as fate combines with the natural order to push conflict ever nearer.

When we finally reach The War itself after a couple more interludes, the music is every bit as bombastic as expected, as pianistic bravura of the highest order is called upon to unleash the shocking violence of the Trojan War. By way of contrast, Trojan Horse is eerie, ultimately a terrifying conclusion to the saga.

The valedictory Epilogue skilfully weaves together the (thematically related) motifs of Homer, Helen, Troy and Destiny before dying away into the Night motif, ending on a whisper.

In many ways this is an exhausting work, certainly for the performer, but also for the listener who is drawn ever deeper into the story and characters. That these movements gel together musically (indeed, even without the story this would be a compelling work with its own internal logic) is a triumphant testament to Say’s skill as a craftsman composer and pianist.

Exploring the Work…

For those who want to get even more to grips with this work, Schott Music have produced a lovely score of this work, eschewing a more serious look for a colourful, eye-catching cover:

Within, there are 68 pages on cream paper, with staple binding holding the book together. The composer’s extended written introduction appears in four languages (Turkish, English, German, French), and includes a synopsis of the Trojan legend for those who forget its finer details, as well as an account of the piece’s background.

The score itself is superbly and spaciously presented, with particular care given to the placement of page turns. Instructions about the extended ‘inside the piano’ techniques required are explained in detail and with clarity in foot notes.

Strikingly, the recurring leitmotifs are fully labelled each time they occur, ensuring that the performer is fully appraised of the programmatic elements within the music. This also makes the score particularly attractive to those whose primary wish is to follow along with Say’s recording, and understand the work more fully.

The Rest of the Programme

Had the disc merely included the Troy Sonata I certainly wouldn’t have felt short-changed. What follows is no less brilliant however…

According to the CD booklet,

“As with many of Fazil Say’s other compositions, The Moving Mansion breathes new life into the hidden memories and stories of the past. Say introduces listeners to the story of the plane tree and mansion on the National Farm Estate in Yalova. The work recounts Atatürk’s love of nature, a concept that has become a topical subject for today’s world leaders. As the work progresses, Atatürk’s passionate believe intensifies.”

The work was first performed in Switzerland in 2017 and has its Turkish debut in Ankara on 10 November 2017. Cast in four contrasting movements, the piece lasts for around 15 minutes in total.

Once again, this is a dramatic and compelling work in which virtuoso pianism is contrasted with moments of truly mesmerising beauty.

Concluding his survey, Say introduces two pieces from The Art of Piano Op.66. First we have Sari Galin, which delights as a restrained and lyrical jazz interlude, gently developing through improvisatory and exotic flights of fancy.

The deeply felt and intensely melodic Winter Morning in Istanbul will be known to some in its piano duo incarnation, which has previously been recorded and is quickly establishing itself in the duo repertoire.

The Recording

As an interpreter of his own music Fazil Say is of course above reproach, but what stuns above all here is the aplomb with which he rises to the extraordinary technical challenges that his own music rejoices in.

From fiery attack to velvety intimacy and indulgence, Say evokes and coaxes cinematic and orchestral colours from the piano that one rarely encounters.

The cantabile singing tone familiar from his Mozart recordings finds perfect material in the Art of Piano miniatures, while his acute sense of voicing adds depth and nuance to the often dense harmonies of the Moving Mansion and Troy Sonata.

Sparta (from the latter) includes a particularly dazzling foray inside the piano itself, the startling musical impact brought fully to life by the immediacy of Warner Classics outstanding recording, made in the Great Hall of the Mozarteum, Salzberg and produced by Jean-Martial Golaz.


Fazil Say Plays Say is certainly not “easy listening”, but it’s a phenomenal album to experience, both demanding and rewarding our full concentration.

If you haven’t already discovered Say’s powerful and unique musical voice, now’s definitely the time!

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.