A spellbinding birthday party

Singapore-born pianist Melvyn Tan.
Singapore-born pianist Melvyn Tan. PHOTO: SHEILA ROCK



Melvyn Tan

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall/Tuesday

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 Oct 13, his 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 thrust Beethoven's late period Sonata No. 30 In E Major (Op. 109) unequivocally into the Romantic era. Its first two movements carried on from the bagatelles with a show of wistfulness and fist-shaking dramatics.

The gem that was the third 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, Tan premiered in Singapore British composer Jonathan Dove's Catching Fire, specially written for him. It is a captivating showpiece of about 15 minutes, with slower sections of bell-like sonorities (and occasional birdsong) alternating 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.

The second half was devoted to 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. It was a highly personal account that took certain liberties in phrasing and pauses for breath.

His fingers and entire musculature were equal to its outsized physical demands. Although there were some missed notes, he was too absorbed in the music to be bothered, instead drawing his listeners in for a spellbinding ride.

What a journey it was, from stentorian chords and luminescent chorales to stampeding octaves and, finally, silence. This performance was not about digital virtuosity, but more of a lifetime's experience encapsulated within half an hour.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2016, with the headline 'A spellbinding birthday party'. Print Edition | Subscribe