A Fiery Dove Premiere Performed by the Amazing Melvyn Tan

10/07/2016

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Beethoven, Dove, Liszt: Melvyn Tan (piano), Cheltenham Music Festival, Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, 9.7.2016. (RJ)

Beethoven: Six Bagatelles, Op 126; Piano Sonata in E, Op 109 No 30

Jonathan Dove: Catching Fire (premiere)

Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor S178

I wish I had weathered the years as well as Melvyn Tan who is just three months away from his 60th birthday. As he bounced onto the platform at the beginning of his recital he looked only half his age and the brilliance of his performance suggested his youthful energy is undiminished.

The pieces in Beethoven’s Opus 126 may be termed bagatelles but, though brief, they are by no means trifling, and Tan captured the contrasting moods to perfection from the gently flowing Andante which opens the series to the furious concluding Presto with an exquisite melody which embedded in it.

It seems that the piano sonata which followed started out as a bagatelle, before the composer made the wise decision to extend it. The concise first movement started unobtrusively enough but Tan soon began to pile on the intensity, following it with with a prestissimo which leapt around. In the theme and variations which complete the work Beethoven set out to exploit the singing qualities found in the more modern pianos of his time. Tan followed this intention to the letter making good use of his expertise in 18th century music which played such a major role in his early musical career.

I well recall hearing Tan play a set of concertante variations by Jonathan Dove entitled An Airmail Letter from Mozart. Mr Dove’s latest work for the pianist, Catching Fire, is on a much larger scale however: it focuses on flames in all their aspects from the flickering light of a candle to the flames which get out of control and become a destructive conflagration. “Three times we stare at a still flame, but each time it comes to near something else, and catches fire,” writes Mr Dove. And so we heard passages of quiet lyricism alternating with furious pounding on the keyboard, culminating in an astonishing toccata of such power that I had to peer round to make sure that Pittville Pump Room was not ablaze. “Controlled strength” was how one of my fellow concert-goers described the work …. and the performance.

There was no let up in emotional power in the final item on the programme, Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, regarded by many as his finest work. It is a work of stunning musical architecture, a sonata within a sonata, as well as an emotional roller-coaster. Its whispered beginning built up the audience’s expectations which were amply rewarded as Tan unleashed a soaring melody played with passion and tenderness contrasted with a more lyrical second theme. The slow movement, which formed the start of the development  was relaxed and persuasive, reminiscent of Rachmaninov in his more intimate moments one felt, until one realises that Liszt was a fore-runner of the Russian composer and indeed a trailblazer for many modern 20th century composers (even Mr Dove?) whether they realise it or not. The fugal scherzo was robustly played before the full-blooded recapitulation marked the conclusion of an astonishing emotional and spiritual journey. It ended with a master-stroke: an interlude of sublime calm like light penetrating through stained glass.

After this truly remarkable performance Melvyn Tan looked utterly exhausted and perhaps nearer to 40 than 30 – but he still had sufficient energy in reserve for a substantial encore: Liszt’s Un sospiro.

Roger Jones

The Cheltenham Music Festival continues until Sunday July 17 for further information visit www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/music.

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