Visiting pianist Melvyn Tan was unfortunate to have his only concert on a night of rain and cold as Melbourne has suffered recently. Those who braved the weather were well rewarded with a virtuoso performance from the Singaporean born Tan, a slight but compelling figure on the concert platform, but the weather no doubt accounted for a smaller audience than one would expect for a performer of this calibre and reputation.
It was a night of surprises, however, at least for this writer. The most significant was that a Steinway grand dominated the stage, and there was not a fortepiano to be seen. This was hardly surprising, with the full program comprising:
Beethoven Sonata No 30 Op 109
Dove Catching Fire (international premiere)
Chopin 24 Preludes
Tan is inevitably associated with the earlier instrument, his contribution to films alone making his name familiar in credits, notably playing Carl Davis’s memorable music for the 1992 BBC series Pride and Prejudice. But Tan has recorded Beethoven several times, sometimes with the fortepiano, at other times with a modern instrument, so it was no great surprise that he chose the master’s Sonata No 30 Op 109 to open this concert.
There was no specific program for this performance (another surprise!) so those who were not very familiar with the work could only comment on Tan’s style, without guidance from program notes. These would have revealed its basic structure: Vivace, ma non troppo/ Prestissimo/ Andante molto cantabile ad espressivo. Furthermore the last movement is a set of variations that interpret the theme in a wide variety of ways. Without such details, it was possible only to observe Tan’s style rather than his interpretation of the work. This was characterised by a strong attack making much of contrasts, of which there were many of course. Particularly in the fast passages there was the expected technical mastery. A little occasional unevenness in the tempo may simply have been Tan’s exercising the freedom of rubato in comparison with the more classically correct fortepiano.
Certainly it should be noted that the pianist was well in control of the pedaling, an important factor in Beethoven sonatas. The third movement in particular – an adagio characterised by a hymn-like theme – was played with tenderness and never sentimental. Notable among the variations that followed was a staccato chase across the piano, yet more evidence of Tan’s technique.
The next work was written for Tan on the occasion of his 60th birthday. British composer Jonathan Dove’s Catching Fire unexpectedly, fitted well with The Beethoven sonata in style. This was not immediately obvious as it started with spare single notes in each hand, giving a quite introspective effect. But as the composition gained speed the effect was of a rippling brook and the technical demands grew stronger. Without wishing to mix metaphors, the work at times had the sound of a fast train, with two apparently distinct patterns in the left-hand compared to the right.
Passages in the bass were fast moving and passionate, about as different from the fortepiano sound as one could imagine. In Tan’s sympathetic and capable hands the work kept our interest right up to the daring chords that ended the piece.
After interval came 24 Preludes of Chopin, Opus 28. Some were more familiar than others, but so contrasting that without more detailed information is not possible to properly give the pianist credit for his performance. The first Prelude was lovely with the notes singled out and the left-hand unbelievably fast. There was as much variety in the Preludes as one could expect – some fast and flowing, others hinting at peasant dances. There were strong rich chords and plangent melodies, with Tan seeming to revel in every one of the 24 contrasting pieces. Only in one, no. 20 In C minor, (sometimes called “Funeral March”) could there be more contrast, the middle section needing to be more hushed. It was one slight slip in a wonderful concert and in a positive way reminded us that a fortepiano would not have allowed such fine contrasts. And we were privileged to hear a master of both the earlier instrument and the modern pianoforte.