Authority and Beauty

Melvyn TanIt’s a coup when a local society can boast a famous patron – Taunton Choral Society has Bryn Terfel, Amici has Elizabeth Watts and the Milverton Concert Society can be justly proud of its President, Melvyn Tan – especially when he comes to Milverton and gives a recital of the calibre and splendour of last Friday evening. The church was, as expected, packed to capacity and the audience’s expectations were fulfilled in every way. This delightful and unassuming man becomes transformed when he sits at the keyboard and he stamped his authority on every note from start to finish.

Schubert’s A Major sonata of 1819 is a delightful and uncomplicated work, starting with a lovely singing melody, and Melvyn’s beautifully articulated playing was spiced with finely judged rubato throughout. The short rising octave passage in the first movement was majestic but not overpowered as it sometimes is, and Melvyn’s expert pedalling kept every line and arpeggio crystal clear. The yearning chords in the slow movement were beautifully played and the whole thing had a lovely wistfulness. The allegro finale is light hearted, but there was also great sonority in the slightly heavier passages, and I was continually struck by just how clear the texture of the sound was throughout.

Schumann’s Op. 12 ‘Fantasiestücke’ (Phantasy Pieces) were next, and these eight short pieces are very popular with pianists and audiences alike. Based on short stories by E. T. A. Hoffman they are not ‘programme music’ as such, but there is supposed to be an element of depiction and narration, a conversation between two characters.

The first, ‘Des Abends’ was played with a limpid tone, genuinely suggesting the peaceful onset of evening, and Melvyn maintained a lovely legato line throughout. The sudden contrast of the dramatic, passionate outpouring of the second piece (‘Soaring’) was masterfully handled. I may be totally wrong in my interpretation of the third piece (‘Warum’ – ‘Why?’), but to me the constantly repeated 6-note figure in this reminded me of an insistent child repeatedly asking ‘but why?’ – an experience many of us will have had!

The grumpiness and quirkyness of ‘Whims’ was followed by really dramatic and passionate playing for the turbulence of ‘In the Night’ and I was struck by how beautifully Melvyn handled the central transition into a more consolatory section which was soon overwhelmed again by agitation. The sixth piece ‘Fable’ alternated slow and frisky tunes and the penultimate ‘Dreams’ Confusions’ had us marvelling at Melvyn’s fabulous articulation and tight control while still allowing the music to sound free and relaxed. The majestic finale with its fine march-like inner section sent us off for our mulled wine and mince pies in very good humour.

The second half was devoted to one of the pinnacles of the romantic piano repertoire, the 24 Preludes of Chopin. These are unique, even within Chopin’s output, and although they follow the pattern of Bach, in that there is a piece for each of the 24 keys, each one is totally different in length and character. This presents a significant interpretative challenge to any pianist, and Melvyn rose to it with great aplomb. In his opening remarks, he said that some of these pieces were ‘very easy’. Not to me they’re not! – but I knew what he meant. Although some of them may not present huge technical problems, that makes the task of the pianist as interpreter all the harder.

What followed was a tour de force – technical brilliance married to real musicality and sympathy with the idiom of the composer. The applause was as wild and enthusiastic as any I have heard at these Milverton events and was totally deserved. Melvyn eventually relented and gave us a lovely rendering of Liszt’s ‘Un Sospiro’ as an encore. This was a lovely end to an evening of wonderful music. Milverton Concert Society is very fortunate in its President and that good fortune was transferred to all who were present that night.

Review by Harold W. Mead