Anyone familiar with the alluring quasi-minimalist music of the Dutch composer Simeon ten Holt could easily draw parallels between Holt’s expansive Canto ostinato and the initial bars of Fazıl Say’s immensely likeable Four Cities. This first ‘city’, ‘Sivas’, recalls a specific poet and a native instrument (a lute-like ‘saz’) but the warmly sensuous opening gives no clues as to various surprises in store along the way, with cellist Nicolas Altstaedt finally allowing his instrument to morph into something resembling warbling panpipes. The second-movement ‘Hopa’ throws us headlong into a ferocious dance – neither Bartók at his most unhinged nor the gypsy band Taraf de Haïdouks have anything on this – but the most original episodes are in the dramatic 10-minute tribute to ‘Ankara’ (Say’s birthplace), where the ingenuity of the writing, prepared piano pitted against various colouristic effects on the cello, is so effective that there are times when you can’t tell which instrument is playing. The wild-eyed finale ends with the musical equivalent of a pub brawl. I defy any musically responsive youngster who yawns at the prospect of listening to a work for cello and piano to leave Four Cities without wanting to hear it again. It is youthfulness personified and the performance is stunning.
In an interesting note for Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata, the critic Julian Haylock observes how the composer ‘appears to have embraced its neoclassical gesturing as a means of containing his deep feelings of anxiety concerning a trial separation from his wife, Nina, and his love for another woman’. Well, prepare yourselves, because Say and Altstaedt demolish the neoclassical façade and reveal that burning anxiety for all its worth, especially in the opening Allegro non troppo, a reading that turns on the heat like none other I’ve heard in recent years. The second movement drives hard; and if in the finale Altstaedt doesn’t quite match Daniil Shafran for a sense of mischief, he’s still compelling. Midway between Say and Shostakovich come a playfully pouting rendition of Debussy’s late Sonata and Janáček’s rustic Pohádka, another distinctive performance, ‘distinctive’ because these remarkable musicians take each work on its own terms. Happily, there’s no all-pervasive Say/Altstaedt ‘method’. As the musical canvas changes, they change with it, which is very much as it should be. A terrific CD.