Say & Alstaedt’s “4 Cities” a Fascinating Musical Journey

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SAY: Cello Sonata, “4 Cities.” DEBUSSY: Cello Sonata in D min. JANÁČEK: Pohádka. Presto. SHOSTAKOVICH: Cello Sonata in D min. / Nicolas Altstaedt, cellist; Fazil Say, pianist / Warner Classics 190295867232

The gimmick of this CD—and it seems, nowadays, that the big labels (of which Warner is one of the biggest) seem fixated on kitsch gimmicks in order to sell classical “product”—is that these four sonatas were written in four different cities (well, duh!) and in addition that Fazil Say’s cello sonata is “a musical celebration of four Turkish locations the composer describes as ‘full of personal memories.’” Happily, the music is good enough to sustain the listening experience.

The opening of Say’s first movement, titled “Sivas,” sounds much more like pop music played by cello and piano than anything classical. I was not very pleased with the over-reverberant echo in which the music swims, and sometimes sinks. Fortunately the second movement, “Hopa,” is very dramatic, featuring Alstaedt playing rapid figures with fast, edgy bowing and Say’s piano pounding out percussive figures in the bass range. This is the Fazil Say I’ve admired in the past, and I really enjoyed this movement. I almost wished that the sonata would have started with this movement! In the development section, the cello is slapped like a string bass, after which Alstaedt plays a fast native Turkish dance rhythm while the piano continues to pound behind him. The liner notes claim that this is a remembrance of a wedding celebration in full swing.

The third movement, “Ankara,” begins with Say repeatedly pounding the contrabass low A while damping the strings with his other hand, while Altstaedt is playing ominous-sounding sustained low notes. Then the cellist moves into a fragmented melody, the pianist now playing single As roughly three octaves higher than before. It’s a strange piece, built around hints and suggestions of music rather than fully-formed statements. Then, at the 5:27 mark, roughly halfway through the movement, we hear a snippet of Ankara’nın Taşına Bak, a protest song dating back to the First World War. I wonder if Say revived this song as a protest against the destruction of his native country’s beautifully-balanced ethnic diversity by invading ISIS hordes? In the latter part of this movement, Altstaedt is forced very high up in his range, then to play wavering pitches as the music moves to a fade-out.

The last movement, “Turkish Saint-Tropez,” is a complete surprise, a tribute to Bar Street where “all manner of musical styles intermingle,” but primarily swing jazz. Altstaedt does a pretty good job on it, but it’s really Say’s piano that drives the rhythm and swings.

Their performance of the Debussy Sonata, one of the great gems of the catalogue, is played with fervor by the duo, if not quite on the exalted level of Colin Carr’s classic account. Altstaedt and Say give it a bit more rhythmic push than usual, and the pianist in particular really seems to get into the spirit of the piece, prodding Altstaedt to some fine, expressive playing. The last movement really sparkles!

Janáček’s Pohádka or Fairy Tale was new to me, a beautifully atmospheric piece typical of this composer’s chamber music. I fully enjoyed the interplay between the two musicians here, particularly the way Say articulated the piano part. The duo creates an almost shimmering effect with Janáček’s delicately written score, filled with melodies but never cheap or sugary in his expression. The work has an unusual history. Based on the same fairy tale that inspired Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Janácek wrote three movements in 1910 but intended it to be a larger work; in 1912 he added a poetic, reflective finale, which he later scrapped as unsatisfactory. Eventually he rewrote it, in the version heard here, in 1923. The extra “Presto” movement which follows was intended for inclusion, but somehow never made it into any of the three versions. In E minor, it’s both vigorous and ominous in feeling, probably meant to represent the evil magician Katschei. Although not thematically related to any of the three settled movements, it makes a nice addendum to them.

This recital wraps up with the Shostakovich Cello Sonata. Written early in his career (1934), it manages to avoid the over-the-top emotion of some of his later works despite a raging second-movement Scherzo later used as a basis for his Tenth Symphony (certainly one of his greatest). The first movement, in particular, is one of the finest things Shostakovich ever wrote, a melody both appealing and intriguing with subtly morphing harmonic changes and a final section of quiet mystery. I was intrigued by the section in the second movement where Shostakovich employs the cello much as Stravinsky did in The Firebird, playing soft, quickly-sliding figures up and down the range of the instrument. Here, as elsewhere throughout this recital, Alstaedt shows remarkable variety of tone color and rhythmic elasticity, his playing always being emotionally charged and in synch with the feelings demanded of the music—note particularly the almost nostalgic Largo. As for the finale, many early listeners considered it too flippant and sardonic in its humor, but nowadays we have no problems accepting it.

All in all, a splendid recording and, for me at least, a superb introduction to the excellent cellist Nicolas Alstaedt.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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