Tuesday, 9 March 2010


A bit of history was made when Singaporean-born pianist Melvyn Tan returned to give a recital and masterclass at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory on 8 March 2010. This was a first public appearance on a Singapore stage since 1975. In between, he had become a British citizen after having committed the “cardinal sin” of not reporting for National Service. The ugly public brouhaha that arose in 2005, when mobs of self-righteous NSmen threatened to picket his Esplanade recital (eventually cancelled due to fears for his well-being) and appearance as judge in the National Piano Competition, are now (hopefully) a thing of the past.

Tan performed a short recital attended by a small audience of cognoscenti and students, serving a telling reminder of what Singapore had been missing over the last 35 years. Rushing to the Conservatory from our Bukit Timah surgery, we missed entirely the first movement of Haydn’s Sonata No.52 in E flat major. The slow movement was one filled with sorrow and regret, distinguished by silences and pauses, and the Rondo finale rang out joyously, unfettered by metronomic strictures. There was a rhythmic freedom and lack of inhibition that was altogether refreshing.
A figure of concentration.

Then came two transcriptions by Franz Liszt, about whom he spoke of the great pianist’s service to then-neglected composers of the age, which included the prematurely dead Schubert. He brought out the singing line of Liebesbotschaft (Love’s Message) from Schwanengesang well above the busy accompaniment, and in Liszt’s own Die Lorelei, a keen sense of drama and narrative was married to perfect cantabile.

He then closed with Chopin’s Fourth Scherzo in E major (Op.54), the most elusive and difficult of his foursome. While more accurate performances may be heard in piano competitions worldwide, one would be hard pressed to find one so filled with humour and a sense of playfulness. Tan’s Chopin was not a reflection of airy-fairy Romanticism, but one also one imbued with raw passion and (sometimes) primal urges.
Melvyn Tan clearly enjoyed
his return to a Singapore platform.

Watching Tan perform was also a delight. The range of facial expressions, while not directly contributing to the music making, was a reflection of the sheer joy he was experiencing at the keyboard. Nothing seems put on (Lang Lang, take note) as it all appeared a totally natural manifestation of his musical persona.
Thoughtfully listening to Haydn and Kwon.

After a tea reception, Tan’s masterclass showcased three top conservatory piano talents. We had time to hear two perform. André Kwon Cheo Yong played Haydn’s Variations in F minor. Tan reminded all that instrumentalists aspired to be singers, that is “everything needs to breathe”. It was also important in certain passages to “let it all go”, rather than to be too deliberate in tempi. For classical music, he also suggested to practise sustaining without the use of the pedal, which can help to achieve greater clarity in articulation.
Melvyn Tan marvelled at Abigail Sin's
prodigious feats in the Chopin Préludes.

Tan was very impressed with Abigail Sin’s performance of seven Préludes from Op.28 by Chopin. The G major Prélude (No.3) was so smooth and clear that he requested it be performed again just for the sheer enjoyment of hearing it a second time! For the C minor (No.20), he cautioned against letting the intensity slip beyond the opening Fortissimo bars. He revealed that the secret to the G sharp minor number (No.12) was in achieving legato in the right hand, while the marked cantabile should be observed in the B flat major Prélude (No.21).

What was clear in both recital and masterclass is that Melvyn Tan truly loves the piano, and is an inspiration to many. Welcome home!

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