Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Fazil Say (piano)
rec. 2022, Ahmed Adnan Saygun Arts Centre, Izmir, Turkey
WARNER CLASSICS 5419723396 
I was unfamiliar with the artistry of Turkish pianist and composer Fazil Say and being such a devotee of the work he plays here, I leapt at the chance to hear and review his take on it. Unfortunately, my delight in his rendition is compromised by an issue which has nothing to do with his performance or interpretative choices but rather with the peculiarity of the recorded sound, which is harsh, reverberant and clangourous in a manner most unusual in this era of digital perfection. The acoustic is such that higher louder notes even have about them an element of distortion. I find myself wondering of that flaw was somehow exacerbated by the tuning of the concert piano he employs, but there is no information in the booklet concerning the nature of that instrument.
This is especially regrettable given how much I like this performance; the confidence and coherence of Say’s account here very much reminds me – and here is an inevitable point of reference when discussing recordings of this work – of the young Glenn Gould’s first essay. It is a swift, sometimes even perky and joyous reading; his dexterity in the fast runs is a delight and he is unafraid to challenge and even disregard the over-reverential approach which can sometimes render it too sententious – and here I am thinking of such as Rosalyn Tureck, whose portentousness is not at all to my taste (see my 2020 survey of this work).
This is not to say that Say cannot generate a suitably stately, hieratic mood in the slower variations; he tells us in the notes that he long mulled over the fingering, tempi and colouring of the work before that he reached the maturity of understanding and familiarity requisite to rectify the omission in his recorded corpus and to my ears his solutions are eminently satisfying and satisfactory. The ‘Black Pearl’ Variation XXV here, however, is perhaps played far too fast for those who savour its contemplative, mysterious potential – but its delivery is consistent with Say’s over-arching concept of the work and the most salient features of his interpretation are fluency and fluidity; as I remark above, his exuberance rivals that of Glenn Gould and the delicacy of his touch in, for example, the filigree of Variation XV, is captivating, as his execution of the runs and arpeggios in the ensuing Variation XVI, so redolent of baroque courtliness and the scampering, pell-mell propulsion of Variation XX, which comes across as both thrilling and humorous.
Thus the problem here is precisely the reverse of the recording of the Goldberg Variations I reviewed earlier this month, by Tianqi Du, which is graced by perfect recorded sound but marred by the lack of a sufficiently mature and varied vision of the work’s capabilities – a failing further exacerbated by the pianist’s persistent and obtrusive vocalise. (In fairness, I must observe that we may faintly hear a hint of that peccadillo by Say in his ‘Black Pearl’, too.)
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