Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Some Words with Singaporean pianist MELVYN TAN

Singapore-born pianist Melvyn Tan returns home to give a piano recital, his first here in almost 35 years. Considered Singapore’s greatest pianist, he made his name performing on the fortépiano, an early keyboard instrument that preceded the piano’s popularity. His recordings of music by Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, recorded on the EMI Classics and Virgin Classics labels, have received rave reviews around the world. His Singapore recital on 19 January at the Esplanade Concert Hall performing on the modern grand piano includes works by Schumann, Chopin and Debussy.

Do you remember the last time you gave a piano recital in Singapore? That must have been in the 1970s. What did you play on that occasion and what were your feelings at that time?

It was really so long ago. I really cannot remember. So much water has passed under the bridge. As a teenager I must have felt some anticipation but now 40 years later it is very difficult to recall.

Although the piano was your principal instrument, was it a conscious effort on your part to specialise in the harpsichord and fortepiano?

At the Menuhin School it was solely to study modern piano. It wasn’t until I was at the RCM that I 'discovered' the possibilities of Baroque and Early Classical music that I began to pursue my interests elsewhere. I hadn’t realised before that there was a completely different sound world out there waiting for me to discover, the very sound world of composers like Mozart and Beethoven!!!

You made a name for yourself on the fortepiano, then considered to be a fringe instrument performed by the “period music” or “authentic music” movement. What attracted you to that instrument and with whom did you study?

When I decided to take up the fortepiano professionally very few players were on the scene. Everything I have learnt has been entirely self taught by reading different theses from the 18th and 19th centuries and by learning through trial and error what works for me and what doesn’t. Performing is a long, long laborious process and one's learning never stops. And of course you as an individual evolve and develop new ideas. It’s only natural.

Are there major differences in style and aesthetics between performing the classics – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert - on the fortepiano and the modern piano?

There are of course physical differences: the fortepiano has a much lighter action than the modern, and just that determines a very different approach to the music. But these days one has am 'in-built' sensor, and I cannot really analyse too deeply how I approach music from different composers, at least not here in a few sentences. But there has always to be a clarity of thought and musical ideas in the performance, otherwise it doesn’t work.

You have also done some conducting, with your New Mozart Ensemble and the London Chamber Orchestra. Tell us about that experience.

Directing from the keyboard is a very liberating experience, much closer to a chamber music approach than a concerto situation. Players in the ensemble actually listen to you (as opposed to just looking at the conductor) and that alone has a much more concentrated effect on the musical performance. I see it as much more like chamber music making rather than me dishing out orders to the players and following me regardless.

What prompted your return to performing on the modern piano?

It happened over a long period of time. Many assume as in newspaper articles at the time that it happened kind of overnight. One of the reasons was that I was beginning to miss playing later repertoire (I could only go as far as Schubert and Weber on the fortepiano) and I felt I missed out playing with good modern orchestras in bigger halls. But the process took a long time, and now the majority of my work is on the modern piano, though I enjoy the fortepiano when I occasionally come back to it.

The repertoire for the piano is enormous. Chopin and Schumann, which you will perform in your January 2011 recital, are obvious starting points. Your repertoire also includes Debussy and Messiaen (hopefully to be heard on another occasion). How do you decide what gets studied and performed?

The French aspect of my repertoire is very close to my heart. Many of my teachers at the Menuhin School were France-based and trained and so that teaching was naturally passed on to me. Some of my professors actually knew D'Indy, Debussy, Fauré and Ravel. These days my repertory (apart from the obvious Classical composers) is largely governed by international concert promoters and Festivals who come to me suggesting they would like me for a certain piece etc.... would I consider, etc..

The Messiaen Vingt Regards sur l'enfant Jesus happened exactly this way. It was something I always thought of doing but pointless in learning it if none would want to programme it. Then a major London Festival approached me to play it. I agreed but I took two years to really learn it and for it to get under my skin. That two years working on that piece completely changed my life. I don’t think I have ever been affected by one work like that before. Having said that it does last just under two hours in performance!

What are your feelings about returning to perform in Singapore?

I am obviously much looking forward to it. Aside from performing I'll also be conducting three masterclasses. The arts in Singapore have been progressing very well. I conducted a masterclass at the Conservatory earlier this year and I was very impressed with the standard of the students. I'm looking forward to working with even more young musicians in January. As you point out, its been a long time and it would be a great pleasure to share some of the musical journeys I have embarked on, journeys which may have been life changing, but always a total pleasure.
Melvyn Tan was interviewed by PianoManiac, with the kind assistance of CultureLink.

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