Wednesday 1 March 2017

Master, pupil & a birthday: Melvyn Tan at Rhinegold Live

Melvyn Tan
Melvyn Tan
Beethoven, Czerny, Jonathan Dove; Melvyn Tan; Rhinegold Live at Conway Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 28 2017
Star rating: 5.0

From late Beethoven to a Jonathan Dove birthday present, in a programme notable for the dexterous virtuosity of the playing

For the first Rhinegold Live of 2017, at Conway Hall on 28 February 2017 the pianist Melvyn Tan played a recital which moved from Beethoven's late Bagatelles, Op.126, to the Variations on a Theme by Rode, Op.33 by Beethoven's pupil Carl Czerny (1791-1857), to Jonathan Dove's Catching Fire which Dove wrote for Tan last year in celebration of Tan's 60th birthday. Following the recital there was a brief Q&A with Tan and Owen Mortimer, the editor of International Piano magazine.

Beethoven's Bagatelles, Op.126 were published in 1825, his last solo piano works. Beethoven told his publishers Schott that the pieces were 'probably the best I've written', and he seems to have regarded them as a cycle to be played in one go. Commentators detect links between the works and the larger scale pieces Beethoven was writing at the time. Each of the six movements seemed to explore a particular mood or style from the fascination with a wide separation of the hands in no. 1, Andante con moto to the manic changes of mood in no. 6, The pieces might be short, but they are not negligible, and Beethoven explored some striking and daring ideas. Melvyn Tan (playing from memory) played with surprisingly robust tone, but with a nicely lyrical line too, drawing out the complexity of Beethoven's ideas.

Tan's latest disc, Master and Pupil, which he was signing after the concert, explores the sequence of master-pupil relationships which led from Beethoven to his pupil Czerny to his pupil Liszt.
And we had a glimpse of this when Tan followed the late Beethoven with Czerny's Variations on a Theme by Rode, Op.33. These were written in 1822-23, possibly after Czerny heard soprano Angelica Catalani performing the piece by Pierre Rode (1774-1830). Czerny first of all presents the theme, which was not particularly interesting in its own right, and the interest in the piece is very much about what Czerny does with it. Each of the five variations seemed to be more complex than the previous, and Tan impressed with his wonderfully nimble finger-work in some extremely busy textures. The aim of such pieces is, of course, to enable the performer to show off. Whilst Tan did give us fireworks, his playing was highly musical rather than being bravura for its own sake.

The final work in the programme was Tan's 60th birthday present, Jonathan Dove's Catching Fire. Dove said in the programme note that though he writes at the piano, he had rarely written a piano piece. Lasting around fifteen minutes, for Dove the piece evoked the flickering of a flame which flares up three times during the piece. Starting from a series of motifs carefully place on the piano, widely spaced on the keyboard, Tan created a calm but constantly moving texture which suddenly flared into action with fast overlapping hands creating a flickering effect. Increasing in intensity and then suddenly dying, the calm returned. But the spare textures did not last long and the next flare up brought not only fast flickering but jazzy rhythms and hints of Conlon Nancarrow's music. Waves of textures led to the final climax, where the underlying rhythm seemed pure rock and roll. In introducing the work, Tan said that it was fun to play and it was certainly fun to listen to. Dove has created quite a bravura tour de force which Tan played with dazzling ease and a great sense of colour, bringing out the variety of texture in the piece.

Afterwards at the Q&A, Tan talked about how he had decided that it was finally time to tackle the Liszt sonata, and how the programme for the new Cd brought out the surprising similarities between the way Liszt uses the piano and late Beethoven.

Earlier in his career Tan was known mainly as an exponent of the forte piano but that he found he was missing the repertoire which he was taught when at the Yehudi Menuhin School with teachers such as Nadia Boulanger, Vlado Perlemuter (who had studied with Ravel) and Marcel Ciampi (who had worked with Debussy). So returning to playing the modern piano was a return to his roots. Tan enjoyed his time at the Menuhin School because of the emphasis on making music with others, and this enjoyment of chamber music is a link he finds with other Menuhin School pupils. Tan found the forte piano brought a lovely clarity to the music of Mozart and Beethoven and he tries to get that sort of clarity on the modern piano.

Tan talked about the way his teacher Marcel Ciampi had made him practice everything, including Debussy, without using the pedal and only bringing the pedal much later. With his own pupils Tan said he felt that it was not his role to tell them something it had taken 25 years to learn, but to get them to work things out for themselves and that the best way is simply to perform.

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