Friday 25 April 2014

Melvyn Tan and Friends at the Menuhin Hall

Melvyn Tan, photo Andy Newbold
Melvyn Tan,
photo Andy Newbold
Melvyn Tan and Friends: 50th Anniversary Celebrity Series at the Menuhin Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 22 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Mozart, Debussy and Schumann played by Melvyn Tan and other Yehudi Menuhin School alumni

Founded in 1963, the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey has been celebrating its 50th anniversary. Founded by Yehudi Menuhin to train talented young musicians, the school has been putting on a celebratory series of recitals at the school involving celebrity alumni. I went along on 22 April, to hear Melvyn Tan and Friends. Pianist Melvyn Tan plus violinists Elisabeth Perry and Ning Kam, violist Simon Rowland-Jones and cellist Niall Brown in a programme of Mozart's Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor K478, Robert Schumann's Piano Quintet in E Flat Major Opus 44 and movements from book two of Debussy's Images.

The Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School
The Menuhin Hall
The concert hall the the Menuhin School is relatively new, being built in 2005. It has a lovely wood interior seating 330 people with a warm acoustic and not the slightest echo of noise from the roaring traffic on the nearby M25 reaches the interior. A distinctive feature of the concert was that the 60 pupils of the school were all present, sitting on the platform and neighbouring balcony.

The concert took place on Founder's Day, Yehudi Menuhin's birthday and his daughter and other members of his family were present. All five performers were former Menuhin School pupils ranging from Elizabeth Perry who joined the first class of pupils in 1963, to Ning Kam who became a pupil in 1987.

They started with Mozart's Piano Quartet No. 1 played by Perry, Rowland-Jones, Brown and Tan. The work was written in 1785 just after Mozart moved permanently to Vienna. It was one of a group he wrote for publication to make money, but the work proved to be too complex for the publisher with a piano part not dissimilar to those of the piano concertos Mozart was writing at the term.

The opening Allegro started with a dramatic moto theme and developed into an intense dialogue. Tan's playing was crisp, quite articulated with a lovely soft touch too. The hall's acoustics made the ensemble's very characterful playing rather immediate. Though the piano writing was complex, Tan was very much one amongst equals rather than the work being a piano concerto in miniature. The Andante opened with a piano solo for all the world as if it was a piano sonata, then the material was repeated with the strings. The four players wove through the ideas with a lovely sense of give and take, and a feeling of music making between friends. The final Rondo again started with a piano solo, before the strings repeated the same material. The players brought a lovely playful feel to the way the music alternated between piano and strings, which added to the fun.

As a pianist Tan spent much of his career playing the fortepiano, but he now plays both the older instrument and the modern piano (the instrument used for the Menuhin Hall programme). He performed three of Debussy's Images from the second book which appeared in 1907, works which are rather more enigmatic than the first collection of Images. In Cloches a travers les feuilles Tan showed stunning control combining a delicate texture with highlighting individual motifs, giving the feeling that under the delicate web of sound there was very precise fingerwork and imagination at work. Et la lune descen sure le temple qui fut was more obviously oriental, Tan's playing had a lovely colouristic sense evoking bells and other timbres. Poissons d'or was all fast shimmer and equally fast changing harmonies. Tan's technical brilliance wasn't showy but combined strength with a delicate touch.

Finally Tan was joined by Perry, Kam, Rolwand-Jones and Brown to perform Schumann's Piano Quintet a work dating from 1842 and which the composer completed in a couple of weeks. The piano part was designed to show off the talents of Schumann's wife Clara, but illness forced Mendelssohn to take her place at the work's premiere. I have always found the piece one of the most appealing amongst Schumann's chamber works, with the composer imaginatively solving the problems of balance between piano and strings.

The Allegro brillante opening movement started in a beautifully impulsive manner, with a nicely understated and finely phrased second subject, and an intensely concentrated development section.  The second movement march was quite steady and rather grave. It was a little unsettling despite firmness of rhythm, rather creating an eerie feel. The first episode was flowing, but quite deliberate in tempo, in contrast to the impulsive and dynamic feel to the second episode. The Scherzo was taken at quite a lick, wonderfully headlong with a playful edge and an incisiveness too. Trio one relaxed the tension, with a lovely fluid texture. Trio two was darkly scurrying in a gypsy manner. The final Allegro was a rondo, gypsy style again but with intense moments and delicate ones. The rondo's episodes varied in character with great forward impulse.

The whole concert was highly involving and played at the highest level. The programme had a lovely feel of players who have been playing together for ages making it really feel like music making amongst friends, with a level of communication which you would not necessary expect with such a relatively ad hoc group. After the concert we were talking about how much a commonality of training at the school might have effected this and given the players the basis of a common language. Whatever the reasons, the result were very fine indeed and this was superb way of celebrating Yehudi Menuhin's birthday. There are further celebrity recitals at the school, along with concerts by the pupils, further information from the Menuhin Hall website.

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