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Fazil SAY (b.1970)
Symphony no.2 Mesopotamia, op. 38 (2011)* [48:44]
Symphony no.3 Universe, op.43 (2012)** [26:28]
Carolina Eyck (theremin), Bülent Evcil (bass flute), Çağatay Akyol (bass recorder), Fazil Say (piano)*; Carolina Eyck (theremin), Aykut Köserli (percussion)**
Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra/Gürer Aykal
rec. Istanbul Lütfi Kirdar Convention and Exhibition Centre, Istanbul, Turkey, concert, 14 December 2012*; 16 December 2012 **
NAÏVE V5346 [76:00]

It would seem that Turkish pianist and composer Fazil Say does not shrink from taking on a challenge as the subtitles and the scope of these two symphonies clearly indicate.
 
His Symphony no.2 Mesopotamia seeks to tell the story of the present day Middle East against the background of its culture and history. It is divided into ten movements all of them highly descriptive. Some of the instruments it calls for are unusual to say the least. In some cases they are rarely if ever heard in a symphonic context and one was specially created for this very symphony.
 
Using the bass flute and bass recorder to represent two young brothers as “narrators” Say paints a huge canvas which these innocent children will lead us through during which one will be shot dead. A theremin is used to represent a symbolic angel who watches over Mesopotamia and is the children’s protector. The composer uses his symphony as a call to peace. The music is suitably grand in scale and highly colourful. Having read the brochure which describes what each movement concerns the listener can easily follow the “story”.
 
The first movement entitled Two Children in the Plain sets the scene with the establishment of a leitmotif in the shape of a Kurdish folk song. This reappears as a linking theme at various times throughout the symphony. The two main instruments are often played in unusual ways with sharp sounds caused by stopping with the tongue. There follows an ominous build up of tension to indicate “fate”. The movement ends with a waterphone leading us into the second movement. It is entitled Tigris River, one of the two rivers which Mesopotamia lies between; the other being the Euphrates which is described in the eighth movement. This movement is wonderfully descriptive of the flow of water.
 
The third movement About the Culture of Death is a powerful statement about the seemingly endless cycle of wars in the region and the resultant destruction that trails in their wake. The music is suitably ominous with the expressive use of the lowest registers of a bank of trombones. That movement segues into Melodrama in which the two children speak of fate and their desire to live, above which the angel introduces a sad melody. This is followed by Sun, the giver of life in which spiralling trumpets and xylophone represent the sun at its zenith. The Moon then takes over with both its romantic and dark connotations. Say, the recording’s pianist, achieves this using a method of playing from his cult piano work Black Earth in which he places his left hand onto the strings to cause a twanging dullness of sound. Bullet is introduced with the specially created “instrument” that makes the sound of a dove against which the two children chat and play until suddenly artillery fire is heard and one of the brothers is killed. The other, horrified and bewildered, laments with the ‘dove’ signalling the approach of dawn and the sun, this time rising to a terrible scene. Euphrates River, fast flowing in comparison with the Tigris, is described while the surviving child cries out with a desire for revenge and in anguish for his murdered brother.
 
The ninth movement About War is Say’s denunciation of war which he calls “the most futile thing within the emptiness of the cosmos”. Although he asks the rhetorical question as to how war can be represented in music he pretty well achieves it. This is done through a dissonance that as he says is shown by different sections of the orchestra declaring war on each other and in turn on the audience. The final movement in this unusual symphony is The Ballad of Mesopotamia in which several elements from previous movements reappear. The rivers and the moon are set alongside the Kurdish folksong and a general hope for the future. This is expressed with a final utterance from the sad and lonely theremin. The audience responds to its conclusion with well deserved applause and vocal enthusiasm.
 
Fazil Say’s Third Symphony could be said to have an even greater scope since this attempts to give some musical expression to the universe. Again the theremin is used, this time to evoke a feeling of blackness and void in the symphony’s opening movement Expansion of the Universe. Rather than a piecemeal attempt to describe each planet Say selects a few elements. The second movement is Venus but not the beauty of the feminine representation of Venus as viewed by the astrologer but the scientific view that the planet which has 800 degrees temperature once collided with Earth. Out of this Say creates the idea that prior to that there was life on it but that this was extinguished by a meteor shower before the collision. That life is represented by bass flute, theremin and English horn. The waterphone is used to evoke the creatures’ fear. A bank of trumpets repreesents the meteor shower. We then experience a Storm in Jupiter - a storm which scientists believe has already lasted 300-400 years with winds reaching 8000 kilometres per hour. With the aid of a wind machine along with percussion and brass this phenomenon is certainly brought to life.
 
Giving musical voice to the concept that there is “life out there”, Say uses his movement Earth-like Planet Gliese 581g to try to express what that life might be like. He calls on what must surely be the most unusual set of instruments to appear in any music, theremin, waterphone, daxaphone, log drum, hapi drum, ufo drum, vibratone and sansula. If any sci-fi film makers are ever looking for a composer they should certainly put Say on the shortlist. It is easy to see why Carolina Eyck is considered as one of the world’s leading theremin players as she makes the instrument sound so life-like. It’s sometimes hard to believe that we are not hearing a human voice. The sounds of snuffles and grunts made by some of the other instruments evoke some very strange creatures. The theremin suggests the highest form of life on this far away planet.
 
The penultimate movement, Supernova is “full of sound and fury”. It signifies the explosion of stars which is the force behind the creation of the supernova before, Dark Matter begins, which is evidence of the creation of the universe. In this Say uses major tones to represent nature, minor for humans and atonality for chaos. A climax is built up adding notes in a mathematical progression that shows his grasp of the scientific theories involved.
 
These two symphonies had their premières within a few months of each other. They reveal a composer who has achieved cult status in his native Turkey and who has a growing international reputation. He is thoughtful and original with some extremely innovative ideas. The Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra fully deserves its reputation as the country’s best. It shows that corporate sponsorship can be beneficial to the arts having grown out of a chamber orchestra founded by Borusan Holdings, a leading Turkish industrial group. Celebrating its 14th anniversary in 2013 it clearly shows itself to be world class. The impressive list of soloists who have been engaged to play with them underlines this. Skilfully conducted by Gürer Aykal and with such brilliant soloists as Carolina Eyck on theremin, Bülent Evcil (bass flute), Çağatay Akyol (bass recorder), Aykut Köserli (percussion), the composer himself Fazil Say on piano, these two symphonies are certainly musical experiences not to be missed.
 
Steve Arloff 


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