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16 Jan 2020

Crebassa and Say: Impressionism and Power at Wigmore Hall

On paper this seemed a fascinating recital, but as I was traveling to the Wigmore Hall it occurred to me this might be a clash of two great artists. Both Marianne Crebassa and Fazil Say can be mercurial performers and both can bring such unique creativity to what they do one thought they might simply diverge. In the event, what happened was quite remarkable.

Marianne Crebassa (mezzo-soprano) and Fazil Say (piano), Wigmore Hall, 8th January 2020

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Fazil Say (piano) and Marianne Crebassa (mezzo-soprano)


Fazil Say, especially, can divide critical opinion but I have always found him one of the most interesting pianists of his generation. His musicality is profound; he literally feels everything he plays and when you watch him, he is like a marionette, his arms and hands moving as if attached to strings. Who the puppeteer might be remained one of those unanswerable questions. He conducts from the keyboard, his body sways to the music before him as if he is completely immersed in it; he dives and swims in what he plays with synchronised eloquence. It’s quite beautiful to watch. Equally astonishing are the tonal colours, the sheer palate of sound he gets from the instrument - and in French music - which this was recital was largely of - the effect was almost obscenely erotic. But what you also get with Say is the composer, the radical protester, the activist, the atheist and a beguiling fascination with the textures of the Middle East all of which penetrates his interpretations of western music.

Marianne Crebassa, too, is just as compelling. This is a mezzo who is quite at home in Handel as she is in French song; but she takes the risk to sing Herrmann, Dalbavie and Berio with equally impressive results. Where I really find Crebassa so exceptional is in repertoire which is on the fringe of mainstream song. Last year she sang Berio’s Folk Songs and one felt she was ghosting the great Cathy Berberian in singing them. The purity of her mezzo voice, and the darkness of the shadows in the tone, might have silted out some of the roughness, but the theatricality and precision was totally there. In this recital we got two wordless vocalised works - one by Ravel, the other by Say - and both demonstrated a calibre of control and virtuosity which reminded one, in style at least, of Diamanda Galas - even if they were sung down several octaves.

I suppose what was interesting about this recital - and what I should like to hear more of in future - was the melding together of two formats. On the one hand, we had the conventional duet between pianist and mezzo - but, on the other, we also got Fazil Say as a soloist taking centre stage. If for much of the recital he stuck, too, to the theme of French music it ended with a deeply personal response to protest, freedom and liberty. This may have been something which Say had composed - these were his own works - but they were unmistakably timeless and relevent today in their message.

The symbiosis we heard in this concert perhaps stemmed from the success of their 2017 CD they recorded, Secrets, of an almost identical program. Crebassa, in a short preface to that disc, had written of the tranquillity, inner thoughts and secrecy some of these composers had on her itinerant life. There are the unconfessed desires of Ravel, the melancholy of Debussy or the unhappiness of Duparc from which unsuspected hope emerges. These are secrets “like a perfume that you’ve never forgotten”.

The differences between French song and German Lied aren’t particularly subtle and as Crebassa showed throughout this recital she has the kind of voice which is capable of delving into that picturesque landscape of evocatively poetic sophistication it needs. Debussy’s Trois Mélodies can sometimes prove elusive at getting inside the Verlaine settings on which they are based. It’s true that the clarity of the stanzas don’t always sound coherently visible - in fact, they often come across with the brush strokes of invisible edges, perhaps blurred here and there. Even for a naturally gifted singer such as Crebassa, and one who sings with such impeccable thought for the words on the page, these songs can sound ambiguous. But then, perhaps they are meant to. Crebassa did bring a vibrancy to them and Say was more subtle than one might have expected. But he is a pianist with a definite back story and so his playing tends to be infused and framed by desolation when it’s needed - such as in ‘Le son du cor’. Crebassa brought out the sensuality, an assuaging pliability, which veered between being ardent and devotional.

Ravel’s Shéhérazade is more substantial in almost every way. When I last heard Crebassa sing this it was in the orchestral version. That had been a pretty faultless performance, though she had been helped substantially by the Philharmonia Orchestra’s enormously gilded playing in doing so. I don’t think this performance managed to scale those heights. This felt less voluptuous, somewhat drier in tone. It wasn’t that she and Say divaricated from each other, rather that you felt neither attached much warmth or intimacy to it. Crebassa always manages to draw one into this music with her magical beginning of the first song, ‘Asie’, but what was largely missing was a sweeping hypnotism the rest of the song needs. Its sheer length and breadth are demanding and although Say was completely inside the Middle Eastern and Persian sound-world - not at all unsurprising given his heritage - I don’t think Crebassa was overly inspired to follow him. The two shorter songs perhaps suited Crebassa better. ‘La flute enchantée’ is a contrast song, a vivid portrait of sorrow and joviality and Crebassa struck the balance perfectly; ‘L’indifferent’ resonates with ambiguity - “like a girl”, “handsome face” and so on - and it’s Crebassa’s brilliantly burnished mezzo quality of her voice which particularly makes the enigma of the song’s ambiguity so convincing when other singer’s struggle to do this.

Faure’s Mirages are almost metaphysical songs, though the way in which some of them work - like ‘Cygne sur L’eau’ - requires an uncommon unity of vision between the pianist and soloist. Crebassa was exemplary in picturing motion through the words and Say restrained and careful in giving us the gliding narrative through the keyboard to accompany her. They serpentined through these two songs as they unwound like a musical stream. The works by Duparc could, in one sense, have almost acted as a preface for the Say sonata which was to follow - these are much darker, almost Wagnerian, in tone and inflection. Chanson triste is almost weighted down by its tragedy; Au pays où se fait la guerre a bitter lament on separation and death. Crebassa doesn’t bring the opulence to Chanson triste that Jessye Norman used to and this is probably the correct approach. Here we got something altogether sharper, more penetrating, laced with an infinity of sadness. It was rather a similar story in the second song where the unsparing focus on terror and the horrors of war were amply pictured and Say was superb in underlining this through the drama of solid octaves on the piano. If it should have had any melodic direction it was pointedly, and largely, eschewed.

Marianne Crebassa can often be at her best in repertoire which for many singers takes them outside their comfort zone. Ravel’s Vocalise-étude en forme de habanera, which had closed the first half of the recital, is a wordless tour de force evoking the drama of Spanish dance. It had everything you could want: drama, pace, inflection, the complete evocation of Spain. Gezi Park 3, which concluded the second half, and composed by Fazil Say, is the final work of a trilogy in homage to protests sparked by opposition to the destruction of this Istanbul park. Also wordless, it is often a reflection of mourning, of lament, but it is never less than inspiring in its passion. Crebassa was riveting throughout and completely unfazed by the virtuosity it demanded of her.

Fazil Say’s solo part of this multi-faceted programme included pieces by Satie, Debussy and himself. The first three gnossiennes owe, in part, their inspiration to Romanian folk music something which sits comfortably with Say’s ethnically influenced pianism. In the past, he has sounded heavy-handed, even rather wilful, in these pieces. That appeared less the case here. Satie is rather vague as to what he wants the soloist to do - or, perhaps a better way of describing it is he allows a certain creative sense of direction. There is nothing monochrome about this music; and there is certainly nothing monochrome about Say’s playing either. There is no disguising his distinctive body movement as if he is part of the music he is playing. Even though these pieces can sometimes sound as if they have stopped in motion Say hasn’t done so. There was a great deal of intricacy which evolved from his playing, a composer’s vision of these pieces, and the intricate lines were very clearly phrased. The two Debussy Preludes were in turn powerful yet dazzling.

It was, however, Gezi Park 2, Fazil Say’s almost 20-minute piano sonata which made the most lasting impression, and quite possibly of the entire recital. The second part of his trilogy is a harrowing, deeply powerful piece, especially the third movement which is about the killing of an innocent teenage boy, Berkin Elvan, who was hit by a tear gas canister during the protests and subsequently died. The music of the sonata often reflects on the turbulence of the events - there is often little space throughout for any music which could be said to harmonise or gravitate towards contemplation. But that is not to say this piece doesn’t have a message of hope beneath its torrential rawness. Clusters of pounding chords are often the dominate thread that links much of the music, and predominantly at the lower reaches of the keyboard. But by pressing his hand on the opened top of the piano, with a light pressure, Say can also instil this work with a ghostly silence as he uses a single finger to adjust the dynamics at the other end of the keyboard. The virtuosity required is breath-taking, in many respects reminiscent of a piece like Prokofiev’s G minor concerto. The performance was completely absorbing and it’s certainly a sonata which pays repeated listening. A magnificent end to a quite superb recital.

Marc Bridle

Marianne Crebassa (mezzo-soprano), Fazil Say (piano)

Claude Debussy: Trois melodies; Erik Satie: 3 Gnossiennes ; Debussy: La Cathédrale engloute, Minstrels: Maurice Ravel: Shéhérazade, Vocalise-étude en forme de habanera; Gabriel Faure: Mirages; Henri Duparc: Chanson triste,Au pays où se fais la guerre; Fazil Say: Gezi Park 2, Gezi Park 3.

Wigmore Hall, London; 8th January 2020.

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