How do you like your Beethoven in the 21st century?



A fifth of the 21st century has already passed. Following Daniel Barenboim, Paul Lewis and most recently Igor Levit, Fazıl Say celebrates Beethoven’s 250th anniversary of birth with his recording of the complete sonatas. Say himself says that he aimed this to be a “reference recording”. No doubt that there are many moments of genius there and it is a heartfelt account of Say’s own vision, as a composer in his own right, of Ludwig van. Yet the liberties Say takes with rhythm, tempo, nuance and touch are to such an extent, that they require an understanding of the history of Beethoven pianism. Will Say’s be a reference recording? No one can know the answer, but we have attempted to pose the questions.



One of the most important musicians to emerge out of Turkey in the late 20thcentury, Fazıl Say, has now recorded arguably the most monumental music composed for the piano; the complete piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven. For his admirers, fans and those who know his personality, it came as no surprise when he declared that he wanted to make a recording that would be “a reference recording of the 21st century, for generations to come” and “wanted to give the world  a present” ( ). (In this article Say also cites his being a composer as a new phenomenon of Beethoven interpretation, which, of course, stands to be corrected: Both Arthur Schnabel, and, to a lesser extent, Wilhelm Kempff were composers.) Ambitious as these intentions sound, Say’s wish gives music lovers an opportunity to rethink how pianism is changing in the 21st century and what sounds, tones, methodology can we anticipate from today’s pianists and how they compare with the sounds of the 20th century. Say is arguably the most talented pianist to have born in Turkey in late 20th century. In certain ways, he is a genius and his music making is exciting, full of surprises and nothing short of creativity. In these recordings too, there are many moments of great musicianship. Had it not been for typical idiosyncrasies of Say, I could have been more enthusiastic on Say’s vision of Beethoven as a whole, but as I will try to demonstrate below, there are certain, repeated preferences of his, which do not add anything to the history of Beethoven interpretation, in my view. Say’s Beethoven style, however, is in line with the ideas of the 21st century and does provide us with an opportunity to consider the pianism of future. There are ample opportunities for comparison. Arrau, Brendel, Kempff, Pollini and Schnabel’s complete, as well as Gilels’ almost complete recordings would remind us of the aesthetics of the 20th century, whereas Daniel Barendoim’s DVD set, as well as Paul Lewis and Igor Levit’s accounts would be the perfect 21st century accompaniment to Say’s most recent accomplishment. Igor Levit is a particularly important reference, since, although essentially different, certain tone and gesture preferences of his are closer to Say, rather than Paul Lewis. Say is not alone in the drive he seeks in Beethoven, but what is his method?
The Beethoven tone; forte, staccato, sforzando…
Before moving on to certain individual sonatas, one general attitude Say has in this recording is the way he tackles Beethoven’s forte, sforzando and staccato. These are actually what make up the essential Beethoven sound. Brendel provides invaluable musical ethics in this respect. “What is a musical accent? … the sforzandi of Beethoven receive the most unthinking treatment: … it has become habitual to “stab” at them” he says and indeed this is amongst the problems of today’s Beethoven interpretations. It is what is exactly problematic and disputable, in my view, on Say’s interpretation, the way his forte and sforzando stab at the listener. Brendel continues “An sf may swell out a note; it may plummet into it; it may have a cantabile character” (Brendel, Alfred, Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts). Alas, not in the 21st century, apparently, at least not in Say’s recording. Of course, “There is no general rule determining the quality and quantity of a sforzando. It is governed by musical significance, which has to be discovered by the player in each instance”. Therefore, a Say enthusiast may surely enjoy the way he tackles such Beethoven nuances. What is meaningful for the musical listener is to think about why she/he likes that sound and to what it is preferred? So let’s listen closely to how Beethoven sounds in our times.
Barenboim’s first Beethoven set for EMI, from the previous century would be a good starting point of comparison with the 20th century. “His performance … contains tremendous bursts of energy, and rich forte chords” (Elder, Dean. “Beethoven’s 32”, Clavier, May – June 1991, pp. 45-47). That sums up the thinking of the 20th century Beethoven pianism. Listen to him and then to Say’s first sonata (Op. 2 No. 1, movement 4) and further listen to the same movement from Alfred Brendel’s pupil Paul Lewis. You will immediately note that whilst both Barenboim and Lewis exercise nothing less than a staccato, theirs’ is a more whole, rounded one, ending less abruptly and resonating. Then listen to Say in this movement. When this forte is coupled with a staccato, the result becomes the more excessive. Listen carefully to Say’s sharp, needle effect, apparent in the Op. 7 Sonata (movement 1 and the second episode of movement 4; the latter is particularly striking as Say intentionally mixes sforzando with upper beat notes and achieves to obtain his desired effect). Compare it with Lewis and Barenboim’s round forte where the weight seems to be so much the more distributed in time. Starting from the earliest sonatas but regardless of what period of the sonatas Say is playing, he frequently resorts to extreme forti and/or very short staccati. Thereby, he achieves a certain Beethoven sound in the louder passages, but not one that I find musical, rather one that is fierce, cold, hasty. How your Beethovenforte chord sounds like is one of the decisive factors in what your Beethoven vision is. Say’s forte is a very attacking, sharp one with, sometimes, brute force and his stacatto are what Brendel calls the stabbing effect. This occurs so frequently that it becomes a trademark of Say’s Beethoven sound. This is more of an acknowledgement than criticism. Indeed, if you listen to Igor Levit’s 2019 Beethoven set, the same movement, although the principal musicality is different, you will see the same gestures when it comes to forti and stacatti. This is exactly the reason why Say’s attitude can make sense; sometimes it is an ugly sound that will make your point. Say, and Levit, represent the sound world of the 21st century and if what they are doing sounds more musical to you, then that should be your reference. I beg to differ. As exemplified by the renderings of Barenboim’s recent DVD set and Lewis, it is possible to resort to the sounds of the previous century and still reflect Beethoven’s ideas. When this gesture is omnipresent and becomes the norm, the sublime is replaced with the mundane. Just listen to the opening movements of the first two sonatas of the Op. 10’s, compare it with Kempff and Gilels to see which you prefer. The gesture in Say remains unchanged throughout, irrespective of varying periods and styles and from the later years. Listen to the last few bars/seconds of the Sonata No. 21 from Say, or check out the last movement of Sonata No. 26, or the climax of the fugue in the last movement of the Sonata No. 29 to note these short chords and the choking effect they produce.
Say’s interpretations rarely lack extremes and turbulence, storms and lightning are never absent from his recordings. An unleashed wilderness could have been his priority. Yet “The most important  task, the primary duty of any performer is to work on tone” says Heinrich Neuhaus, the great Russian teacher whose pupils included Richter and Gilels. Similarly, Gilels’ recordings have been praised (Clavier, January 1988) as  being “Emotionally, he is wild horses … poetically, powerfully he pours out his soul, shaping long singing lines that gain strength from his attention to detail”. Gilels was “famous for his solid, awesome fortissimo”. Indeed, there were times, in the past century, when it was possible to be wild without being loud and painful. The musical fortissimo of Gilels, or Brendel, Arrau and other Beethoven experts of the past century seem to be the minority now, existing in musicians like Barenboim and Lewis, with their roots to the past century stronger and then compare it with any one of Brendel, Gilels, Schnabel. You will easily see what is changing.

Individual sonatas, especially the so-called “early” and “middle period”s where Say is at his best
The above is a general reservation that I felt strongly every time I went back and listened to the sonatas, especially in the earlier ones. That attitude remains unchanged throughout and disturbs me. Yet, there are some marvels going along the way if you can forget about that tone and there are so many moments of genius. Say mentions that he thought of the sonatas as orchestral pieces. This is nowhere more evident than the Op. 2 No. 2; a very long sonata for its period that Say treats like a Beethoven symphony. He establishes a brilliant relation between the music and silences, almost making those silences particularly audible in the first movement and the scherzo that is full of character. Op. 2 No. 3 has a sincere freshness and exciting drive throughout, especially in the opening and closing movements. Both of the Op. 14 sonatas are charmingly executed whereas Op. 22, one of the best on the set, is played with the grandness it deserves. There is a nostalgic thoughtfulness in the second movement, which grows, transforms and subdues beautifully and Say feels throughout the closing of a certain style and period. Indeed, with the Op. 26 Say emphasizes the transition in Beethoven’s style. Brendel is sure that the first movement “does not attempt to be symphonic at all” and nor does Say treat the variations that way. This transitory section of the Beethoven sonatas is where Say excels, possibly because the “Quasi una fantasia”, openly quoted in the Op. 27 Sonatas but apparent in the variations of the Op. 26 gives Say the space and opportunity to use the liberties he desires and the liberties he takes. He turns the pieces into dream-like, even “childlike” as Tovey calls, in the beginning “nursery rhyme” of the Op. 27 No. 1, which is another jewel of the set. The Op. 28 is very well held together, with the “Pastoral” feeling never over-emphasised. The Op. 31 group also works well. Say plays the first of these with genuine love for the piece, never failing to bring up the irony. In the next one, the first movement of the “Tempest”, Say has a passionate drive and catches all dissonances and harmonic surprises mightily. Czerny, whom Say has quoted in his above article, likens this sonata to a musical painting (and the next one to musical speech) and of all the sonatas, this sounds to be the one Say is most comfortable with; it is not hard to imagine him as a as a painter in front of a canvas. Say does not hesitate to show some virtuosity in the last of the Op. 31 group but also achieves to play an old-fashioned minuet so much in style. The Op. 49 sonatas are charmingly, playfully played, though a bit loud and harsh at times. In Op. 54, one is reminded the words of Brendel who complains this finale is “often played wrongly, … like a toccata, even though the various markings of allegretto, piano, legato and dolce point to something quite different … it ought to sound like a continuously shimmering stretch of water … nothing angular”. Say’s tone and articulation would possibly upset Brendel into thinking that Say plays the movement “wrongly” though we will avoid that word. Op. 78 is one of my favourite of the set; Say shows some tenderness in this sonata, which he spares from most of the sonatas that will follow this…
Desynchronization between the bass and the melody
My above admiration has been marred by another distraction throughout though. Something I have found to be extremely disturbing is the way Say desynchronises intentionally, the bass line and breaks chords or the melodic line from it, thereby totally deconstructing the music. Mostly slow movements from Sonatas Op. 2  No. 1 and No. 2,  Op. 10 No. 1 and No. 3, Op. 13 (where the desynchronization is at its most disturbing),  Op. 28, Op. 31 No. 1 and No. 3, both Op. 49 ones, Op. 53 (the last four of which the first movement suffers from the same tendency), Op. 79, Op. 81a, Op. 101 (changing the whole idea of the first movement unacceptably for me) and Op. 109 (where the idea of the variations is ruined from start) are amongst the examples. I can see no harmonic benefit or artistic insight this provides, but I would encourage listeners to think about why we should hear and enjoy this way rather than what has been written originally. This attitude, when used repetitiously, changes the essence of Beethoven music and no longer becomes a tool to underline or emphasise certain harmonies. The sonatas become something other than what Beethoven imagined, not as an interpretation but by altering the innermost idea and philosophy. I would be ken to hear why Say thinks that such alterations make us understand Beethoven more or how it positively changes his music.

Say’s tempi are rarely an issue for me, although he has already admitted some of his choices are in the extremes. Whilst the set kicks off with one of the fastest renderings I have heard of the Allegro from the first sonata in F-minor, I find the attitude to be in line with the 25 year old Beethoven’s spirit and the Sturm und Drang feeling this sonata carries. Without prejudice to my reservations on Say’s gestures, I also feel that in most cases his choice of tempo is in accordance with what he aims to do. In the vast landscape of the 32 sonatas, each of usually three of four movements, there will have to be some tempi that some listeners will find to its taste and some not. Say’s choices of  always have reason and in the majority of the cases, fit his style. In a few, like the first movement of the Op. 53, the “Waldstein”, it is not the tempo itself that is the problem, but the dry and semi-detached articulation makes that tempo almost etude-like. There is nothing provocative in this sonata, as Tovey would confirm, but Say makes it so. Listen to the first movement, the left hand semiquavers between 5:44 and 6:44 and you will note the most unmusical rendition of a (possible) una corda where there is more hammer sounds than actual music, to achieve an eccentric pianissimo effect and is a combination of tempo, touch, (and maybe) sound engineering. The movement has become a gallop, in my view. Or, in the Op. 13 Sonata, the “Pathetique”, the Grave introduction’s tempo (enjoyed by Say with extreme rhythmic freedom) comes to me as false (a word that should be avoided as much as it can) since the contrast with the coming Allegro di molto e con brio  is lost and the listener cannot feel the “resistance to suffering” (in the words of William Kinderman). Note that the Grave returns twice in the first movement, which makes the tempo (and also rhythm) relations essential to grasp the meaning of the first movement. The first movement of Op. 27 No. 2, the “Moonlight” will strike listeners as excessively slow and whilst I do not enjoy the piece at this tempo, there is nothing wrong with it. Enthusiasts should compare it with Claudio Arrau, the closest to Say in tempo, whose bass line has much more resonance than Say’s and Arrau’s music becomes, with a tad of speed, less mechanical and more expressive. Similarly, the last movement of Op. 57, the “Appassionata”, I find it impossible to accept, though I am well aware that my favourite pianist (but not Beethoven interpreter) Sviatoslav Richter does the same. As Tovey very rightfully comments, “Beethoven is rather sparing of the warning ma non troppo, and it occurs oftener in later rather than earlier works. It is therefore not a warning that should be neglected”. Say prefers to neglect the ma non troppo warning and plays the last movement piu allegro all the way. It is for this choice of tempo that Say’sPresto at the end does not have the impact on the listener the way Beethoven desires. In similar fashion, his ignoring the alla tedesca and reading only the Presto of Op. 79 changes the character of the piece from anything close to aLandler. This is not a presto per se, it is a presto for a waltz, a landler.
Individual sonatas: late sonatas and Say’s preferences
As the sonatas proceed, what has disturbed me most in the earliest sonatas, in respect of Say’s choice of nuance and tone, returns unwillingly. In Op. 81a, the “gulp effect”, as I could call it, destroys the flow of the first movement as Say exercises extreme staccato unsuitable, in my view, to Beethoven, the experience of leavetaking ceases to exist. Instead, Say is omnipresent; perhaps this is the best time to remark that throughout the recordings, Say’s own voice is audible, meaning it has intentionally been left there, and whilst this is not something new (Brendel and, of course, Gould in grotesque standards, did this in the past) it is distracting, and most of all in the slow movement of this sonata. Op. 90 is the best of the later sonatas; Say prefers a fuller, darker, round tone for this beautiful work. There is too much ritardando in the first movement where Beethoven specifically marks only two, but apart from the caveat of the above paragraph, there is a convincing way in which Say plays without mannerisms, for once, and the fugue of the finale is executed without forcing the tone. The gigantic “Hammerklavier” would merit an altogether independent article if we had space. Say chooses a perfect tempo and save for all the continued  manners cited above, shows a profound understanding of the first movement. The slow movement, the most beautiful slow movement ever written, has been destroyed, in my view with the above desynchronization. It has become something else. It lacks the intensity of not only Gilels, whose performance of this sonata is my favourite, but also modern day interpreters like Lewis and Levit. What Say does, hurts the melody irreparably. As Adorno says, this melody “is not obvious”, it does not “move on, but remains, circles around itself” and “the repeated notes  … give rise to the peculiar speaking character”. Say misses all of these with a mannerism that he has applied to most of the sonatas from such varying periods. The slow movement of the “Hammerklavier” becomes ordinary. Listen to the recapitulation (from bar 88 onwards, around the 7 minute mark) and compare it with Gilels or Lewis or even others and you will see the lacking intensity. The feeling of late Beethoven is more broken and never more than in this sonata. It is painful, for lovers of this movement, to hear how the feeling of syncopated notes in the melodic line is lost, once the broken and desynchronization alters the meaning of the melody. To play mechanically and expressively in turns; that is the problem of our times and that is the reason why Say’s recording appeals to me less. This is very evident in the Op. 109. A continued excessive forte and extreme application of sforzandi forces the modern pianist to divide his time between being mechanical and expressive, failing to create genuine and varying emotions when the music is fast or loud and relinquish expressiveness. Say is expressive in the first, mechanical in the second movement. He does not play espressivo and does not let the piano sing when the music becomes loud and/or fast. The third movement with the variations is a case in point as an example. Op. 110 is a summary of everything I have said above, but the set ends disappointingly as the last sonata concludes uninspiringly. Adorno says “The close of the Arietta variations has such a force of  backward –looking, of leavetaking, that, … what has gone before is immeasurably enlarged.” Maynard Solomon  confirms that thus Adorno captures “the sense of exhaustion, depletion and suppressed homesickness that accompanies every pilgrim on his journey”. For these feelings, Kempff and Schnabel are easily recommended.
Brendel writes, in 1966, that his “work on the Beethoven series took five and a half years” (Brendel, Alfred. Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts). Say says he “started the project in May 2017” meaning he worked on this for two years. Our present century is a fast and furious one. Few musicians have the time needed for monumental projects like this one. Say’s interpretation reflects our times, no doubt and he will have his admirers as well as critiques on this vast project. Both will have their fair points and ultimately it will come down to the listener’s personal preferences of Beethoven. I can imagine Say’s tempestuous style and exhilarating moments being enjoyed; I have my own from him that I liked a lot. No doubt this recording sheds a light on how music from the 19th century has travelled into the 20th and how its interpretation is changing or resisting change in the 21st centuries. What is essential here is that for the listening experience to become meaningful and for Beethoven to receive the respect he deserves, the listener ought to think about what he likes or dislikes in Say’s sound, tempi, manners and spontaneity. There are his mannerisms which I have disliked passionately, but I did feel that I could see sparks of genius as well. My 21st century reference recording will remain to be Paul Lewis but only time will tell whether Say achieves his ambitions.




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