Birthday Brilliance

picks1398e_2xLast Friday’s ‘President’s Concert’ presented by the Milverton Concert Society celebrated two birthdays – the 30th year of the Society’s music making in Milverton and the 60th birthday of their energetic and charismatic President, pianist Melvyn Tan. There was even a cake with candles at the end, which also tied in nicely with one of the items he played during the evening. This unassuming and friendly man wowed the near capacity audience with a dazzling display of sheer technical skill and artistic sensitivity in a programme which included one of the towering peaks of the solo piano repertoire, Liszt’s fearsomely challenging Sonata in B Minor.

Melvyn got the first laugh of the evening, when he found he had to lift his own piano lid! The concert opened with a performance of Beethoven’s Six Bagatelles, Op. 126. We are so used to linking the words ‘bagatelle’ and ‘mere’ that it would be easy to assume that these pieces are slight and trivial offerings – they are not. Late Beethoven is challenging for player and listener alike – the by now profoundly deaf composer was writing pieces which defied the musical conventions of the time and were boldly experimental in structure and tonality, looking forward to Liszt and other innovative composers for the instrument. The first, an Andante in G Major, was played with elegance and the second, with its quirky key and rhythm changes was played with amazing precision and clarity.

I thought that no. 3 started a little stolidly, but soon we heard playing of fluid grace which perfectly realised the composer’s ‘grazioso’ marking. The intensity of the outer sections of the fourth bagatelle was beautifully balanced by the tranquillity of the middle bars and the lilting playing in no. 5 was truly lovely. The Chopin-like configurations of the themes in the final piece were perfectly rendered.

The same composer’s Sonata no. 30 Op. 109 followed and we were treated to steely-fingered brilliance in the opening vivace bars. It’s easy to see why Liszt was such an enthusiastic admirer of these late Beethoven works – as Melvyn navigated flawlessly through the stormy second movement, the fantasia quality of the music, so typical in the later ‘tone poems’ of Liszt came through clearly.
The elegiac melody of the final movement was stated sonorously, and the subsequent variations allowed Melvyn to relish the whole gamut of pianistic styles, and he was totally convincing in all modes. After unleashing a coda of great power he brought the work to a tranquil close with an equally beautiful re-statement of the chorale-like theme which began the movement.

For his 60th birthday, Melvyn commissioned a piece from Jonathan Dove, and in his own words, asked the composer for a ‘good work out’. He got it – the piece ‘Catching Fire’ could easily have been the fate of the piano, so vigorously did Melvyn have to work. Even the page-turner had problems with a recalcitrant copy which would not lie down on the stand, and it’s the first time I have ever seen a world-ranking concert pianist visibly counting beats and bars as he played! The piece suggests flames – sometimes the small flame of a candle, at others a growing blaze of fire almost getting out of control. From bars of tranquillity the music would erupt like bursts of flame and sparks; there were pages of joyful, dance-like figures where the fire was well-behaved. Other sections reminded me of the savage outbursts in Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ where the fires obviously were on the rampage.

This was playing of outstanding virtuosity and the applause was thunderous and well-deserved. I never thought I’d catch myself thinking “Oh well the Liszt will be easier”.

It’s not of course – he just made it sound that way. I didn’t write down one single word during the performance, it wasn’t necessary. My favourite recording until now has been Krystian Zimerman’s from 1995 and although Melvyn’s interpretation may not quite have had all of the bravura and ferocity of that version, it was certainly a totally convincing presentation of the composer’s brilliant invention. I was utterly enthralled and went out the day after to buy the CD (Onyx Records No. 4156) – this was a performance to treasure.

Naturally we would not let Melvyn go without an encore and we were treated to a masterful rendition of Chopin’s well-loved Fantasie Impromptu Op. 66. Then came the bouquets, the champagne and the birthday cake with candles – a very jolly end to an anniversary evening which the Milverton Concert Society deserved without reservation.

Review by Harold W. Mead – 26/11/2016