Thursday 27 October 2016


Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Tuesday (25 October 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 27 October 2016 with the title "A spellbinding birthday party".

It is hard to believe that Singapore-born pianist Melvyn Tan has just turned 60. The Peter Pan of the piano still sports a boyish smile, and carries an air of giddy excitement when he is near a keyboard, as if preparing for a busy show-and-tell session. His long flailing arms are a given as he steadies himself to perform.

This concert followed closely his London Wigmore Hall recital on 13 October (his actual birthday) and a most recent CD recording Master & Pupil, which showcased the music of Beethoven, Czerny and Liszt. Beginning with Beethoven's Six Bagatelles (Op.126), which may be seen as disparate short fragments that did not become part of a sonata, he brought out a wealth of colour and varied responses.

One might take issue with his generous use of the sustaining pedal, which caused some smudging of textures, but that approach to sound thrusted Beethoven's late period Sonata No.30 in E major (Op.109) unequivocally into the Romantic era. Its first two movements, brief and cogent, carried on from the bagatelles with a show of wistfulness and fist-shaking dramatics respectively.

The gem that was the 3rd movement's Theme And Variations then unfolded beautifully. Its hymn-like theme was projected with crystal-like clarity, and the ensuing variations lovingly tended to. The trills in the last of these led into the theme's reprise, a welcome homecoming with the warmth that greets the best of long-lost friends.

Instead of playing Czerny, British composer Jonathan Dove's Catching Fire, specially written for Tan, received its Singapore premiere. A captivating showpiece of some 15 minutes, slower sections of bell-like sonorities (and occasional birdsong) alternated with fast toccata-like episodes which sparked, sparkled and got increasing incandescent as the work progressed.

Along the way, there were aural references to minimalism, gamelan and even boogie-woogie. It was a long journey that took Tan from his earlier fortepiano days of Mozart and Schubert to Messiaen, John Cage and this work. How he revelled in its terminal velocity and unbridled freedom of expression. Whoever said 21st century music had to be atonal or boring, or both?

The second half was devoted to Franz Liszt's monumental Sonata in B minor, a work of utmost concentration that played on the metamorphosis of four themes. Too often it is mercilessly hammered out or over-intellectualised. Tan's version was neither of these, a highly personal account which took certain liberties in phrasing and pauses for breath.

His fingers and entire musculature was equal to its outsized physical demands. Although there were some missed notes, he was too well into the music to be actually bothered, instead drawing his listeners in for a spellbinding ride. What a journey it was, from stentorian chords, luminescent chorales to stampeding octaves and finally silence. This performance was not about digital virtuosity, but more a lifetime's experience encapsulated within an absorbing half-hour.

Prolonged applause was rewarded with two familiar encores, Liszt's Un Sospiro and Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu. Celebrating pianism does not get as heady as this.  

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