Crebassa and Say: Impressionism and Power at Wigmore Hall

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 MÈlodies 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 ShÈhÈrazade 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
enchantÈe’ 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 o˘ 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-Ètude 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

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 CathÈdrale engloute, Minstrels: Maurice
Ravel: ShÈhÈrazade, Vocalise-Ètude en forme de habanera;
Gabriel Faure: Mirages; Henri Duparc: Chanson triste,Au pays o˘ se fais la guerre; Fazil Say: Gezi Park 2, Gezi Park 3.

Wigmore Hall, London; 8th January 2020.

product_title= Marianne Crebassa (mezzo-soprano) and Fazil Say (piano), Wigmore Hall, 8th January 2020
product_by=A review by Marc Bridle
product_id=Above: Fazil Say (piano) and Marianne Crebassa (mezzo-soprano)